In the last few weeks, at least 160 families have been displaced in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province by Islamic State attacks and fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan government forces and various militant groups.
More than 400 families have been displaced in the province in the past 10 months.
Families in the province say they left their houses to escape violence from militants.
“It’s been a few days that the IS militants have re-emerged, and a new round of firefighting has started. We had no choice but to seek refuge in deserts, under the government-controlled areas,” Khan Mohammad, a displaced man, told VOA.
Two hundred and fifty of the displaced families are from Nangarhar’s restive Pachir Wa Agam district where IS militants are active and fighting Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents over territory control.
IS militants attacked the Pachir Wa Agam district, destroyed many homes and captured more than two dozen local men last December, according to Afghan officials.
The district came under heavy airstrikes when the U.S. entered Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaida and the Taliban beginning in late 2001.
Attaullah Khogyani, the governor of Nangarhar’s spokesperson, downplayed the IS threat but confirmed a recent displacement of 160 families within Deh Bala district of the province.
“The reasons for displacement of these families are the current special military operation against IS militants,” he added.
Afghan joint forces drove IS extremists out of the Pachir Wa Agam district in Nangarhar last December, and then hundreds of local men joined the central government’s security forces to help ensure that IS radicals cannot return to the area.
The Afghan Defense Ministry talked down any “serious” IS threat in the area, asserting that militants are trying to terrify unarmed locals at the behest of regional intelligence agencies. General Mohammad Radmanish told VOA that multiple military operations are under way in eastern Nangarhar province to remove remaining IS fighters.
“We will boost these military operations to provide security and wipe out the traitors. We are also starting to venture the new strategy and improvise our local army units once the areas are cleared,” Radmanish added.
During the past three years, more than 14,000 families were displaced internally in Nangarhad and only 8,000 of them have returned to their houses, Afghan authorities said.
The moment Lucia’s children asked her for food and she did not have anything to give them, and no way to get it, was the last straw. Lucia decided to take on the journey to the United States.
“That was the hardest moment for me,” she told reporters on Tuesday after arriving at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.
Lucia is not her real name and though she wanted to tell her story, she still did not feel comfortable sharing her identity. Sitting next to the 21-year-old Guatemalan woman were her 3-year-old girl and 6-year-old boy. They had just been released from the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center and were among of the group advocates are calling “the lucky ones.”
Lucia told VOA that people in Central America understand how difficult the journey to the U.S. border is, but they are not expecting children being separated.
“I’ve had not heard about this and I believe it is unfair. Like I told [CBP officers] ‘if you’re going to separate me from my children, please deport me and don’t take my children away from me,’” she told VOA.
Separating families is part of the Trump’s administration Zero Tolerance policy under which those detained entering the United States illegally are being criminally charged, a policy that leads to children being separated from their parents because under U.S. law children cannot stay with a parent facing criminal charges.
Art Arthur with the hardline-on-immigration Center for Immigration Studies says the policy has a strategic aim: “It is a deterrent. The only way that we’ll really know whether it works is when we see the numbers for June, July and August.”
Lucia was not expecting that her children might be taken away from her. She was also not expecting to see some of the things she saw inside the detention center.
“There was a woman that she would wake us up to count us. Since it was so cold inside and some children were able to sleep, some mothers would get up and didn’t want to wake up the children,” Lucia said.
“So, the officer kept saying, ‘Wake your children’ and when the mothers did not do it, the officer would come and grab the children and said ‘Wake up and go with your mothers,’” the Guatemalan woman said.
However, she landed at the humanitarian center where immigrants can rest, take a shower, check email, and receive instructions on what to do next. They can also get in touch with family members and arrange to buy bus tickets and travel to their final destination in the United States.
People at the community center on Tuesday carried big yellow envelopes. Inside? Papers that indicate they have an appointment with immigration. The papers explain that once they attend this appointment, they will receive their court date and receive instructions on what to do until next time inside the immigration court.
At the first appointment with the immigration judge, they will be asked why they came to the United States illegally and if they have a credible fear of going back.
When people come to the U.S. seeking protection, they are permitted to file for asylum regardless of their immigration status. U.S. law offers asylum to those people facing persecution in their home countries on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group.
Others are hoping to ask for temporary protection.
Fifty to 100 people arrive at the center almost every day. Lucia and the other families were released because of a discretionary decision among the Border Patrol, often because of the sheer volume of people being held at detention centers.
The discretionary enforcement decision allows Customs and Border Protection field supervisors to decide who they will stop, question, and arrest – and who they will release.
The ones at the center were released, not separated from their children, and given a chance to prove their credible fear case in an immigration court.
“This is a children’s crisis,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director at the Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley and one of the leaders inside the Humanitarian Respite Center, told VOA.
“They’re not criminals. No criminals. They’re children. They’re human beings. They’re families,” Pimentel said.
There is no law requiring the separation of immigrant families at the border, however, if people are caught crossing the U.S. border without authorization and between official ports of entry is a misdemeanor crime.
Charging someone under the federal criminal statute has been historically reserved for those who committed serious or heinous crimes or those with a vast criminal record.
“The previous administration was also very focused in deportation and also created a way to keep families from being released and put in family detention. This administration has focused more harshly in pushing back and send a deterrence message that really goes to the extreme,” Pimentel said.
And she doesn’t think the message is going to be heard.
“A mother that has a kid that is suffering, nothing will stop her from saving her son,” sister Pimentel said.
Pimentel’s Humanitarian Respite Center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. has assisted thousands of people and the Catholic sister has no plans in stopping the work.