Audio captures border agent joking as migrant families are separated

A sign is raised as people protest against the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant families suspected of illegal entry. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

A sign is raised as people protest against the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant families suspected of illegal entry. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

An audio recording published by non-profit newsroom ProPublica provides a rare and disturbing glimpse into the situation at the US-Mexico border.

The clip documents 10 Spanish-speaking children being processed by US border patrol agents after being separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy towards undocumented migrants.

The recording offers insight into the real-world implications of the policy. According to ProPublica, it was surreptitiously recorded inside a US border detention facility last week.

The person behind the recording — who has chosen not to reveal their identity for fear of reprisals —  gave the clip to civil rights attorney Jennifer Harbury, who then passed it on to ProPublica. Harbury said that the person “heard the children’s weeping and crying, and was devastated by it.”

Cries of “mama” and “papá” intermingle with voices of customs agents debating what to do with the children. “We have an orchestra here,” a border patrol agent jokes at one point. “What’s missing is the conductor,” he adds. 

No llores (don’t cry)!” says another agent.

Medical experts, mental health groups and civil rights advocates have been testifying to the damage that such an event could cause to the children and their parents.

In a statement released last month, the president of the American Psychological Association Jessica Henderson says, “The administration’s policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers.”

Migrants caught crossing the border without proper documentation have long been detained by border patrol agents. But under this latest dispensation of the policy, agents are now mandated to separate migrant children from their parents. The children — according to media reports — are being housed in a ramshackle mix of tents, warehouses and complexes that have been converted into makeshift detention facilities.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, from April 19 through May 31, a total of 1 995 children had been separated from 1 940 parents. According to Associated Press estimates,  the number of children taken from their parents has climbed to 2 300. This number is expected to rise.

The US — which has a notoriously overwhelmed system for dealing with migrants — already has more than 10 000 unaccompanied children in US detention centres.

The recording continues with an increasingly agitated child saying, “Tengo numero de ella (I have her number).”  She rattles it off, pleading repeatedly for someone to let her call. Just once.

Finally, towards the end, one of the agents acquiesces.

“It was the hardest moment in my life,” said the child’s aunt. “Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone’.”

The aunt — it is later revealed to ProPublica — is herself an undocumented migrant, who is currently seeking asylum for the same reasons as her niece and appearing at the detention facility would be tantamount to giving herself in.

In the face of mounting pressure to end the policy,  Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have stood firm. “We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws,” Sessions said in statement.

In May, Sessions said at a law enforcement event, “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

“If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border,” he added.

Children detained at the border used to be released into the care of family members in the US without question, but in the past year Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun checking the immigration status of sponsors and their relatives, scrutinising them for possible deportation as well.

The policy makes a travesty of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children are protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or their parents, legal guardians, or family members’ beliefs.

Richard J Loria