More than a thousand migrant families have been separated at the San Diego border since September, advocates say

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

More than a thousand migrant families have been separated at the San Diego border since September, advocates say

Immigration and the border

Andrea Castillo

Dec. 15, 2023

Nearly 1,100 migrant families have been separated since September while being processed at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, immigrant advocacy groups said in a letter sent Thursday to the Department of Homeland Security, asking for an investigation into the matter.

The separations come amid U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s ongoing practice of releasing large numbers of migrants to street locations in San Diego County without coordinated shelter plans, according to the UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy and three other groups that signed the letter. As the number of migrants at the California-Mexico border has increased, Customs and Border Protection has turned to street releases and detained migrants between border walls to reduce the number of people in the short-term facilities.

According to the letter, the immigration law group Al Otro Lado documented 1,081 family separations among the hundreds of migrants it serves every day at a border reception center in San Diego, where it provides legal assistance and translation services. Of that total, there were nearly 400 separations of spouses and about 200 separations of adult children from the parents they were traveling with, including 43 children between the ages of 18 and 21.

Separations of people in other family relationships, such as adult siblings, cousins ​​and common-law partners, make up the rest of the total.

At least 39 cases involved families

to stay


separated after one or more members were transferred to long-term immigrant detention centers. In

at least

In two cases, one family member was deported, while the others remained in the US

Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

“The trauma that families experience during periods of separation is compounded by CBP’s lack of communication and the near-total opacity of its practices,” said the letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which was also signed by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the Jewish Family Service of San Diego.

To prevent further separations, the organizations are asking Homeland Security to expand the definition of a family group under the agency practice to include parents with adult children, couples without a marriage license, adult siblings and extended family members. The groups are also asking that Homeland Security agents document all relationships between family groups and ensure that families are released together, or report the whereabouts of family members who are not released at the same time.

The letter comes after a federal judge in San Diego approved a court settlement

Friday last week

That bans widespread separations between parents and their minor children at the U.S.-Mexico border for the next eight years. The settlement stems from a 2018 ACLU lawsuit over the separations, including those that occurred under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the prosecution of migrant parents who crossed the border without permission.

The settlement has no consequences


Divorces like those documented by Al Otro Lado, which the group believes are under-reported.

An April 20 Customs and Border Protection memo obtained by The Times, which provides guidelines for processing family groups, said Homeland Security “is committed to protecting the unity of families encountered at the border, to the extent legally and operationally feasible.”

The guidelines in the memo apply to parents or guardians with unmarried adult children up to age 25, grandparents with unmarried adult grandchildren up to age 25, and spouses and unmarried adult siblings up to age 25. documentation confirmation


relationships and


connecting these individuals as a family group, with the goal of getting them out of custody together.

“If the guidance truly advances CBP’s stated commitment to preserving family unity, it should be implemented in practice in a manner that allows families to report and document their relationships in accordance with the reality of people being forced to report and document their relationships. are fleeing their countries,” said Monika Langarica, an attorney at the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at UCLA.

Most separated families said they had informed Customs and Border Protection that they were traveling in a family group, the letter said, but families were rarely told they would be separated or how to locate their relatives.

In October, Customs and Border Protection apprehended nearly 30,000 migrants near San Diego, up from nearly 18,000 in October 2022, according to agency figures.

Meghan Zavala, data and policy analyst at Al Otro Lado, said these types of separations are not unique to San Diego.

But Priscilla Orta, a supervising attorney at Brownsville, Texas-based Lawyers for Good Government, which provides legal assistance to migrants, said separations are not common in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, noting that Customs and Border Protection is turning people away in designated places. locations. Few migrants stay overnight because even if family members are treated separately, there is little delay before they are reunited at a shelter. Spouses are often processed together, she said. “If you came here, you would have absolutely no idea that thousands of people are processed every day,” Orta said. “There is no chaos.”

Just under half of the families

recently separated at the San Diego border

come from Colombia, with smaller numbers from China, Brazil, Afghanistan and Peru, according to Al Otro Lado. Some separations have lasted hours or days, while others documented by the organization have lasted


more than a month.

Divorces involving families who speak languages ​​other than Spanish are particularly difficult, leaving attorneys scrambling to find interpreters, Zavala said. Some families are spending days in crowded shelters in San Diego waiting to hear whether their relatives will be released, she said.

“Our organization and others are still under great strain in our capabilities, yet face all these additional hurdles,” Zavala said. “We are trying to do our best to get information to these families who are desperate to know where the person they traveled with is now a hero.”

In one case documented by Al Otro Lado, a man and woman from Colombia were taken into custody by border police in September. The husband was released just across the border from Tijuana

San Diego’s

San Ysidro


without his wife, who was taken to a detention center in Louisiana and deported before she could speak to a local attorney.

In another case, a husband and wife became separated during Customs and Border Protection processing. The man was released to the San Ysidro Transit Center without his wife and returned to the center for weeks, hoping to find her. He later learned she had been transferred to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Texas, where she suffered medical complications. They were separated for 49 days.

Julieta, 38, who requested anonymity and asked that only her first name be used out of fear for her safety, told The Times she arrived in Tijuana from Colombia with her 19-year-old son. She said they turned themselves over to border agents on Nov. 22. Two days later, she was led to a bus and dropped off at a shelter, with no idea where her son was.

Five days


Julieta’s son was dropped off at the same shelter

and they reunited

. She said she knew they would be detained

at the border

but didn’t expect this

that they would be separated


“It’s hell,” she said. ‘Not knowing if your son is safe, if he’s still alive, if something has happened to him. All you can do is pray to God.”


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