Fabiola Santiago

What recordings of quickie asylum hearings reveal would shame most Americans

A girl held on to her mother on June 13 as they waited in Tijuana to request political asylum in the United States. More than 3,000 children have been separated from parents seeking asylum. The Trump administration missed a second deadline to reunite them.
A girl held on to her mother on June 13 as they waited in Tijuana to request political asylum in the United States. More than 3,000 children have been separated from parents seeking asylum. The Trump administration missed a second deadline to reunite them. Associated Press

The court hearings to determine whether parents separated from their children are eligible to apply for asylum are shorter than a fast-food run. No more than 10 minutes.

In smuggled recordings of two recent proceedings obtained by CNN, you can hear a harried immigration judge hurling questions at traumatized mothers like a prosecutor going after a murderer.

Voices tentative and quivering, their vocabulary unsophisticated but clearly anguished, the mothers have been forcibly separated from their children at the border by enforcers of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. They’re worried and scared. But the judge, like the rest of this government, shows them no patience or sympathy.

Details are lost in the quest on the part of the inquisitor to pursue them amid head-spinning back and forth translations. At times, there seems to be no translation at all.

One mother doesn’t know where her 7-year-old son is, how he’s doing, or when they will be reunited. (On Thursday the administration blew another court-imposed deadline to return children to parents.)

It’s all that’s on her mind as she appears before the judge — her son, and the fear of the violence and death threats she fled. Of what they’re living through now in the country where they sought refuge — and what could await them if they’re sent back home.

“I beg you, please,” she pleads. “I need to save my life and my son’s.”

Buena Ventura Martin-Godinez, a Guatemalan seeking asylum who was reunited with her 7-year-daughter at Miami International Airport on Sunday, describes the harrowing journey after the U.S. Border Patrol separated her family.

She says that she, her son, and other family members have been threatened with death because her brother has joined a gang of drug traffickers and “sicarios” — hitmen. She tries to explain to the impatient judge, in simple words, that she has gone to the police, but they’re corrupt.

Judge Robert Powell asks how she knows this.

She has reported the situation to the police, and has asked for help.

“They do nothing,” she said.

But the judge isn’t convinced that she has a well-founded fear of persecution or torture and agrees with the immigration officer who first interviewed her that she’s not eligible for asylum.

Just like that, the rest of her life and her fate has been decided.


This isn’t due process.

This U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo shows intake of immigrants by the U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. Handout via AFP

This isn’t what we think of as American justice, noble and above board, a beacon for the rest of the world to behold and replicate.

But these quickie hearings — short, brusque, inhumane — are the reality at Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, the Trump administration’s primary center for “reunification and removal” of the more than 3,000 separated children. The scene was described by the Texas Tribune as “chaos.”

What the recordings of the asylum hearings reveal would shame most Americans.

The anguish of the women — and the lack of humanity shown them, even when one keeps repeating that she’s feeling ill — is appalling. The woman instead is questioned in the same harsh tone for alleging a rape by her uncle years prior — and is asked whether the missing child she’s begging to be returned to her is the uncle’s. Shameful.

These women aren’t aware of the gravity of these procedures, or the politics that has landed them in this predicament instead of in a place of safety. You and I, as observers of their precarious situation and consumers of news, know more about what’s going on with them than they do in detention with scant knowledge about the whereabouts of their children, some as far away as New York and Miami.

These immigration hearings are closed and private, not open to the media or the public. Taping the hearings is a violation and could land a lawyer in trouble. CNN received permission from the women to use the recording, and given the abuses that needed reporting, I can only applaud the person who put his or her freedom on the line to record what’s happening.

In one of the confusing proceedings, the judge seems to be implying that the woman either go through with her asylum claim or reunite with her child.

That would be extortion, a sham set up to deny the possibility of continuing with an asylum claim. It’s hard to tell who the law-breaker is in this country these days, isn’t it?

These hearings are called “a credible fear review.”

If the judge denies the request to continue with the case, the person cannot pursue asylum and a deportation order is issued. That’s a lot of power in one set of hands working behind closed doors.

One woman tells the judge that she couldn’t understand some of the questions that were initially asked of her — but it doesn’t help her any. Although her situation is harrowing, she can’t explain her fear in a way that satisfies the judge, who’s audibly in a hurry to move on. And, unfortunately, that’s not unusual.

“The reality is that 95 percent are never going to win asylum,” Miami immigration lawyer Wilfredo Allen told me. “To win asylum from Central America is nearly impossible.”

Most people don’t flee carrying proof and they lack the eloquence to make their case.

“They can’t show they were persecuted,” he said. “Fleeing crime and poverty isn’t the criteria for political asylum. Even when I spend five or six hours preparing my clients, they are clueless as to what they’re doing. They’re incapable of expressing [the case] I developed for them.”

That’s precisely why these separated parents all need savvy representation — and time to document their cases.

But this administration is taking advantage of people who are too poor, uneducated, and traumatized at home and at the hands of our government that ripped their children from them, and which now wants to bid them a quick goodbye.

Going before an immigration judge has always been a tough, rigorous process.

But what we hear on those tapes is cruelty of the lowest order.

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