'Family detention still exists': immigration groups warn the fight is far from over

By Amanda Holpuch

Few people have been as closely involved with family separation and reunification as attorney Erika Pinheiro, one of the leaders of the immigration advocacy group Al Otro Lado.

And though Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election puts an end to Donald Trump’s laser focus on restricting all forms of immigration, Pinheiro wants people to understand that the fight for immigrant rights in the country is far from over.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado’s litigation and policy director, said. “It’s not a given that everyone will be reunified, or families, babies are going to be let out of cages – family detention still exists.”

Al Otro Lado has offices on both sides of the border, where it assists immigrants with family reunification, detention, access to healthcare, asylum, deportation and other issues.

It was founded in 2011 and was volunteer run until Trump won the 2016 election on an anti-immigrant platform. The group’s leaders then committed to the work as a full-time, paying job.

It has been a grueling four years. Pinheiro said the Trump administration caused her to question how she could be an attorney when laws were changing each week and the government did not seem interested in following the ones which remained. “Just the baseline of being able to do our jobs as attorneys was thrown into chaos,” Pinheiro said.

There was the added factor of responding to atrocities a tired, exhausted world didn’t want to, or couldn’t, process.

“It felt in many instances that it was screaming into the ether about people dying at the border, people suffering all these horrific human rights violations,” she said. “And some of it got through to the public, like family separation, but a lot of it didn’t.”

With Covid, the group’s work has expanded even more.

“We also have had to do emergency food assistance, quarantine housing for medically vulnerable families,” Pinheiro said. “We’ve supported a dozen shelters in getting clean water and food and PPE, we have helped raise the capacity of several medical organizations here on the border to make sure our clients would have access to any care.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bars asylum seekers and refugees from the US under an order called Title 42. People who attempt to cross the border are returned, or expelled, back to Mexico, without an opportunity to test their asylum claims. More than 250,000 migrants processed at the US-Mexico border between March and October were expelled, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

The situation is dire. Thousands of asylum-seekers are stuck at the border, uncertain when they will be able to file their claims. The camps they wait in are an even greater public health risk that before.

Outside the border, Al Otro Lado has fought for detained migrants to get PPE and medical releases. Prisons are one of the worst possible places to be when there is a contagious disease and deaths in the custody of US immigration authorities have increased dramatically this year. They have also provided supplies to homeless migrants in southern California who have been shut out of public hygiene facilities.

Pinheiro said there will be improvements with Trump out of office, but some of the Biden campaign promises to address asylum issues at the border will be toothless until the CDC order is revoked. It’s a point she plans to make in conversations with the transition team.

A prime concern for advocates about the Biden administration is that it will include some of the same people from Barack Obama’s administration, which had more deportations than any other president and laid the groundwork for some controversial Trump policies.

While it is a worry for Pinheiro, she has hope that the new administration will build something better. “I would hope a lot of those people, and I know for some of them, have been able to reflect on how the systems they built were weaponized by Trump to do things like family separation or detaining children,” she said.

Family separation, which has left 545 children still waiting to be reunited with their parents, was a crucial issue for many voters and Pinheiro hopes that energy translates to other immigration policies.

“How did you feel when your government committed the atrocity of family separation in your name?” Pinheiro said. “The next step is really understanding that similar and sometimes worse atrocities are still being committed in the name of border security and limiting migration.”