Americas: United States
Special Report: Trump administration's move to separate families at the borders sparks outcry at home and internationally
Mid 2018 was marked by outrage in the United States over a controversial policy by the Trump administration to separate parents from the children at the border. The move was aimed at deterring undocumented people from crossing the border illegally into the United States. However, it also subsumed individuals and families who presented at the border claiming asylum - often from violence in Central American countries.
The Trump administration came under fire when border control officials lost track of 1,500 children who were separated from their parents due to the controversial immigration policy. Revelations about migrant children being held in virtual cages after being separated from their parents, added to the alarm.
The measure itself was ensconced in an April 6, 2018 memorandum for federal prosecutors along the southern border, and described as the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy. It should be noted that the policy was not a new law per se, but a new and unprecedented policy advanced by the Trump administration, with the expressed intention of separating parents who crossed the border without appropriate documentation from their children.
In the memorandum, President Donald Trump made clear his intention to prosecute all adults crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. The policy was enacted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions along with the Department of Homeland Security. In effect, all undocumented persons crossing the border would be referred to the Department of Justice and prosecuted for the misdemeanor of illegal entry. Undocumented adults would be placed in criminal custody while any of their children apprehended with them would be treated as "unaccompanied minors" and held separately from their parents.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained the practice as follows: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” When asked about where exactly the children would be held during an interview with NPR, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly replied, "The children will be taken care of -- put into foster care or whatever.”
The policy of separating children from their parents has never been enacted in the United States before. While some critics have pointed to draconian deportation measures used by previous administrations to reduce illegal immigration, in fact, the Trump administration's move to separate young children from their parents was unprecedented.
The effectiveness of that policy was viewed as dubious. Despite claiming that the measures had reduced border crossings by 64 percent, in actuality, border crossings had increased. Also raising eyebrows was the fact that even persons seeking asylum from persecution -- something that all persons are legally entitled to pursue -- would be subject to the new policy. To be clear, both international and federal law prohibit the government from returning individuals to a state of danger.
In an attempt to deflect criticism of his policy, Trump in May 2018 took to Twitter to place blame for the policy separating parents from their children on Democrats. He tweeted, "Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS."
In fact, as explained above, the family separation policy was the work of the president himself. It has never existed until directed and enacted by the Trump administration. Furthermore, the president's reference to MS-13, a notorious and murderous gang with Central American roots, was actually a domestic American gang problem and not something that could be easily linked to undocumented persons crossing the border.
Early criticism of the policy notwithstanding, its controversy level increased when it was revealed that United States officials could not account for close to 1,500 migrant children.
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, said the Office of Refugee Resettlement was not able to locate those children. Indeed, Wagner admitted that between October 2017 and December 2017, United States authorities were unable to locate almost 1,500 out of the 7,635 minors that it attempted to reach because they did not show up for immigration hearings. Wagner indicated that there really was no process for tracking the children, saying, “We do not know who is showing up and who isn’t. We don’t know those kids. We don’t follow up to ensure they go to the hearing.”
The admission coincided with a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union's Border Litigation Project that Customs and Border Protection agents abused and neglected more than 100 unaccompanied migrant children in their custody. The allegations of abuse occurred between 2009 and 2014 during the time of the former Obama administration. While the ACLU report was focused on accusations of abuse prior to the forcible family separation policy of the Trump administration, it nonetheless raised questions regarding the systemic abusive treatment of undocumented children in the United States.
With the news of the missing children, pressure was intensifying on the Trump administration.
United States Congressman Ted Lieu, a Democrat, blasted the Trump administration for separating children from their parents and then losing track of minors. He declared via twitter: "There are many ways to describe the @realDonaldTrump policy of ripping children away from their parents at the border. It violates human rights laws. It is unAmerican. It would shock Jesus. But I think the most appropriate way to describe it is this: The policy is evil."
United States Senator Marco Rubio and United States Congressman Mark Meadows, both of them Republicans, called for changing the law that separates parents from children during interviews with CBS news. However, Democratic counterparts, such as Senator Chris Murphy, made clear that there was no law in effect -- it was a policy enacted by Trump. Via Twitter, Murphy said, "C’mon guys. There is no law that needs to be changed. Trump unilaterally changed the rules so that he could start separating these kids from their families."
Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau issued a similar clarification via Twitter as follows: "It is not a law. Separating children from parents at the border is a new Trump Administration policy. It was not policy under Obama. It was not policy under Bush. It was not a policy under Clinton. We have to be clear about these facts.
Note that at the start of June 2018, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon attempted to gain access to one of the detention centers in Texas housing migrant children. Despite his constitutionally enshrined right of oversight, he was denied access.
In fact, Merkley live streamed his personal attempt to access a migrant detention facility run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Brownsville, Texas where he said upwards of 1,000 migrant children were being detained. He was denied access by a supervisor at the facility and the police were called to intervene. The windows at the facility were blacked out. Senator Merkley also remarked on the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border: "This is not zero tolerance. This is zero humanity. It's damaging children, putting them through a horrific experience in a land where they know no one, and they don't know where they're being sent and they don't understand why they're being sent."
Via Twitter, Merkley said: "When I visited an immigration detention center housing the children separated from their families, I was barred entry & the police were called on me. The front doors were locked and blacked out. What are they hiding about the conditions these innocent children are being held in?"
In response to a public outcry over the lack of transparency about the conditions under which the children were being held, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement as follows: "United States Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas. Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access. The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. Senators. Senator Merkley should respect the UAC program and engage in the appropriate processes, as many of his colleagues have done before him, to visit ORR facilities. We would welcome him to engage in that process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines."
The Department of Homeland Press Secretary released a statement regarding Senator Merkley’s actions: "DHS follows the laws passed by Congress and processes alien children safely and humanely. Contrary to any misinformation campaign, the safety of children is paramount for DHS. I encourage Senator Merkley to work with the administration to fix the underlying loopholes that act as a pull factor for illegal immigration and place these children at risk from smugglers and human traffickers. At 2pm on a Friday, the Senator asked to visit a secure DHS facility over the weekend where children are present and we worked with him to provide him access. This presented obvious and serious privacy concerns – not to mention disrupting operations. He was able to visit the facility on Sunday."
It should be noted that Senator Merkley visited a similar detention facility in Texas -- the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center. There, he reported that he saw children being held in cages. Merkley said, “[T]hey have big cages made out of fencing and wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can't climb out of them. Every time I probed yesterday on the circumstances, the response was just basically a generic, 'That is what's required for security, this is what is required for control.’"
On June 18, 2018, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addressed the family separation controversy during a press conference, first by insisting that no such policy existed. She said, “This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border." Earlier, via Twitter, Nielsen declared, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period."
However, the existence of the April 6, 2018 memorandum, along with acknowledgments from both Attorney General Sessions and Chief of Staff John Kelly at previous times, would contradict Nielsen's claim that there was no new policy of family separation.
To be clear, Sesssion announced the policy and explained tht family separation was being used a deterrent. Later, Sessions used bible verses to justify the policy amidst rising scandal that it was inhumane. Those bible verses have, in the past, been used to justiy slavery. Meanwhile, Kelly in an interview with NPR admitted that the policy was in place to deter people from crossing the border as he said, “[A] big name of the game is deterrence."
More recently, Trump's senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller explained that separating families was a “simple decision” and it was needed to deliver the message “that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
Nielsen also declared that "everyone is subject to prosecution,” and that “parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals.” In fact, undocumented persons can enter the United States seeking asylum and be well within their legal rights to do so. The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, along with the 1967 protocol, which was adopted into United States law, make clear that seeking asylum is not illegal. So the very claim that all persons entering the country without proper documentation being criminals could not be considered as accurate.
Nielsen also had little comment on the conditions under which migrant children were being held, other than to insist that they were being well cared for. However, she appeared unaware that children were being held in cages. To this end, Nielsen said, "I'm not in a position to deal with hearsay stories.”
Nielsen's handling of the immigration issue prompted top Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris to call for her resignation.
The accusations of inhumanity were likely to rise as new reports began to emege. For example, the public advocacy group, ProPublica, published an audio recording of a family separation inside a Customs and Border Protection facility. In that recording, children are heard wailing in terror while border control agents laughed and referred to the distress as "an orchestra."
Meanwhile, a report in the Los Angeles Times outlined the experiences of a youth care agent who resigned due to objections to the Trump administration's immigration practices. In his account relayed to the newspaper, he said that during his time at a government-contracted Arizona shelter, "children were running away, screaming, throwing furniture and attempting suicide."
The unprecedented nature of the separation of migrant children from the parents has to be emphasized. While detention facilities have been in place for years to house migrants who cross the border illegally, and particularly for unaccompanied minors, the family separation process as of mid-2018 has never been in place before.
In effect, what has happened under the new policy is that children are removed from the care of their parents who cross the border and re-classified as unaccompanied minors. This new "zero tolerance" policy was resulting in a growing population of dislocated and traumatized children being held in detention centers close to the United States' southern border. As a result, the United Nations human rights office has characterized the practice as “child rights violations" and warned that the policy, which often affects children seeking asylum, is “unlawful" under international law.
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- June 18, 2018