NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is quietly continuing family separation

As the coronavirus death toll passes 100,000 in the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has chosen to implement a new family separation policy. The so-called "choice" offered to parents hoping to immigrate to the U.S. is either to sign a waiver releasing their children from detention and into the custody of others, or stay together — but detained indefinitely in an ICE facility.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported on one family's court case that will function as a test for other families challenging the Trump administration's policy of separation at the border. The family's story mirrors that of many other families attempting to immigrate to the United States: fleeing gang violence in their home country, having their asylum claims denied, staying in multiple migrant camps, and being held in detention for months on end.

The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition has taken on the family's case, and is fighting to keep them together. Three of the family's children were recently released from ICE custody after the Coalition sued for their freedom. They then joined their father, Jose, who immigrated to the U.S. under an asylum claim many months ago with one of his daughters. But when Jose's wife and the other three children attempted to join Jose in Washington, D.C., a couple months later, they were forced to wait in Mexico, as per the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy (also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols). That's when the three children attempted to enter on their own — and were detained by ICE.

Advocates are now fighting for Jose to remain in the United States with his four children. U.S. officials say that the children already got a court hearing when they tried previously to enter the country as "unaccompanied minors," and their claims were denied. The government, federal officials say, is not legally obligated to hear their case again. And though they're currently with their father, the Coalition is fighting deportation orders for the three kids who came separately.

The family's case is further complicated by the fact that their mother is currently living in a migrant camp in the border city of Matamoros, Mexico. ICE says that she has to surrender herself to their custody so that the kids can "remain in the care of a parent" when they're deported, ICE said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. If their mom attempts to wait for her asylum claim to be processed so she can immigrate legally, then the children will be deported to their home country, El Salvador, with no parents to look after them.

This new iteration of family separation is just one way ICE has cracked down at the border since coronavirus descended on the United States. As the Los Angeles Times put it: "Citing the coronavirus to seal the border to an unprecedented extent, the administration is engaged in a pressure campaign against immigrant parents to get them to give up either their kids or their legal claims to protection in the U.S."

On Wednesday, five House Democrats sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE calling for the halt of deportation proceedings against "unaccompanied minors," like the orders currently weighing on Jose's children. The letter also noted the false "choice" of Trump's "Remain in Mexico policy," which is currently preventing Jose's wife from joining their family.

"Individuals relegated to [Migrant Protection Protocols] — including families and vulnerable individuals — are forced to make an unreasonable and unacceptable choice: Either remain in areas of Mexico that the U.S. State Department recognizes as especially unsafe, or abandon their opportunity to claim asylum before an immigration judge," the letter reads. The same five lawmakers also authored a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, calling for an investigation into the reports that ICE is preventing family reunification by deporting the underage immigrants.

Deporting children back to their home countries would put them in danger, the DHS letter says, and make them vulnerable to physical and sexual violence — as happened to Jose's children. It's not just the home countries that can be dangerous; the very act of moving between countries itself, with little access to health care or institutional support, exposes young people to harm. while staying in a migrant camp in Matamoros before entering ICE custody, Jose's children "suffered physical and sexual assault" and "endured illness, extreme temperatures, and malnutrition," a legal filing said.

Jose and his children are quite literally fighting for their lives. Detention centers with congregate living arrangements have proven fatal for immigrants in ICE custody — just a few days ago, a second man was reported dead from coronavirus while held in a detention facility. Coronavirus has also proven disproportionately fatal to people of color, as well as poor people and those with pre-existing health conditions — all of which make navigating the court case a crisis within a crisis.