Undocumented immigration has been a contentious topic in the American political landscape. But the more I know about the subject, the less I agree with current US immigration policy. At the end of May, a viral hashtag asking #WhereAreTheChildren sprang up on Twitter after the New York Times reported that the federal government hasn’t been able to make contact with 1,475 minors awaiting deportation hearings who many dub as the so-called “missing.” But despite reports to the contrary, these children aren’t really “missing.”
According to immigration experts, these children aren’t in government custody nor are they supposed to be. In fact, these are unaccompanied minors arriving at the US border without parents or adults who immigration authorities have detained and largely released into the care of parents or other close relatives. The government recently tried reaching about 7,600 of these children with a single phone call each. In 1,475 of these, the phone calls went unanswered.
But immigration advocates don’t find the 1,475 unanswered phone calls to the sponsors of unaccompanied minors particularly concerning. Because there are plenty of reasons why families might miss a phone call like boring logistics and more widespread fears of the federal government. A lot of these families have a pay-as-you-go phone number.
However, immigration advocates aren’t spending a lot of time worried about #WhereAreTheChildren. Instead, they think they worry significantly more about the Trump administration’s new policy of separating undocumented families apprehended at the US border. This policy has already led to more than 600 children being separated from their parents. And they fear it will create traumatic situations for families and overwhelm the very immigration infrastructure put in place to protect these minors.
On May 7, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would begin separating all families apprehended at the border trying to cross into the US without documentation. An increasing share of border crossers seeking asylum come as “family units” consisting of at least one adult with one child. Though the Trump administration refers to them as “purported family units” as if to imply these people are lying about their family relationship. For it’s much harder for the government to detain whole immigrant families than it is to detain adults. Federal court rulings have set strict standards on the conditions under which families can be detained. Under the Obama administration, courts ruled that the government can’t keep families in detention for more than 20 days.
However, the Trump administration’s solution that’s now codified in policy is to stop treating them as families. This means to take the parents as adults and place the children in the custody of what Health and Human Services refers to as “unaccompanied minors.” In some cases, according to immigration lawyers, parents separated from their children have begged to withdraw their asylum applications. So they can easily reunify their families in their home countries. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has described this as a “zero tolerance” policy. As he noted, “If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.” When pressed by NPR whether this policy was “cruel and heartless,” (which it is), White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly answered, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” This is another way of saying, “we don’t give a shit what we do to them. We just want to use them as a bargaining chip to get them and their parents out of the country.”
But for families facing the prospect of “foster care or whatever,” the reality can deeply devastating. The Houston Chronicle once reported of a 28-year-old father separated from his 18-month-old son last summer at the southern border, crossing without documentation. The Guatemalan man mortgaged his land back home to fund his sick toddler’s hospital stay and needed to work in the US to pay off the loan. But border patrol agents arrested him for coming back after having been deported for a felony. They placed the toddler in a federal shelter, “somewhere in Texas” while the father was deported 3 months later. The man still doesn’t know where his child is to this day. Yet, hundreds of these situations play out as we speak for families trying to cross into the United States. The Trump administration estimates that it’s apprehended 638 undocumented adults trying to cross the border since the new separation policy began. They were traveling with 658 children. This is beyond other family separations that have happened. According to the New York Times, before the Trump administration announced the new policy, there might’ve been as many as 700 family separations. Keep in mind these people haven’t been convicted of crimes. Many are coming to the United States seeking asylum from the horrific violence in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which has increased 16-fold since 2011, according to UN estimates.
Obviously, immigration advocates are worried about what these separations mean for the undocumented minors going into the United States. The most glaring is the trauma of losing parental contact, especially for the youngest kids. For these children in government custody, their main concern is how fast they can get to the person they see as a family member. For young children, it’s all they can think about. And these detention centers can be a tough place for children to live. Sure, they might have a bit of an education program. But even low-security facilities have barbed-wire fencing around them and monitored communication with those outside. This isn’t good for a kid. Most of the detained minors will be released into the care of a close relative as per the goal for those arriving unaccompanied and those separated from their families. Though those separated from their families might face more challenges since their parent is in government custody. According to ICE, unaccompanied children usually spend 51 days in these facilities with 93% released into a guardian’s care like parents and other close relatives.
But even then, separating families at the border could mean this group of children have a worse chance for making a case for asylum in the United States. Advocates worry about 2 distinct hurdles. First, the separation policy leads to more unaccompanied minors in the country and more children vying for limited attorney services from the pro bono firms typically taking their cases. Already, less than half of those kids get representation. That could have real effects on children since those receiving representation are 73% more likely to win in deportation hearings, compared to just 15% of those without. In addition, children are less able to defend themselves against deportation hearings when they can’t contact their parents. Because their folks likely know better why they believe their kids ought to get asylum in the US and be carrying the paperwork to back it up. Because the adults often know the full story since they’re with the kids the whole time as well as carry documents like birth certificates or police reports. But once these kids are separated, obtaining asylum is a lot harder mostly since the parents often face criminal charges in court at the same time.
Nonetheless, immigration advocates are torn on how aggressively should track unaccompanied minors like whether there’s actually a problem that there isn’t more than a phone call made to ascertain these kids’ whereabouts. On one hand, they want to make sure these unaccompanied children are getting the services and support they need like representation as they move through court proceedings on their immigration status. On the other hand, they worry about aggressive monitoring these children if the US means to use that information as a means to surveil unaccompanied minors to get info they could use against them in their deportation hearings. And because of all the other ways the Trump administration is enforcing these types of laws and policies to serve quite restrictive ends. If keeping track of these kids isn’t done with a more holistic goal of keeping these children safe and healthy (which is very likely), then we should be very disturbed by it.
Now the Trump administration didn’t start this humanitarian crisis. But it’s indeed exacerbating it. Members of the administration have framed the new policy as a way to deter families from entering the United States. As Sessions told a disturbed conservative radio host, “If people don’t want to get separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.” Donald Trump and the attorney general have erroneously leveraged the argument that “the law” is responsible for their own administration policies like family separation on the border. In reality they’re using their legal defense as a smokescreen to justify their inhumane immigration policies and to increase immigrant detention and deterrence. They assume that if they frame the policy as being, even if there’s no law requiring it, most Americans will follow.
However, legality isn’t equivalent to morality. The US has a long history of glaringly obvious xenophobic legislation and precedent. Numerous policies have excluded particular groups, most prolifically from Asia with their basic purpose to preserve a white homogenous United States. This systematic oppression and exclusion of immigrants has always been legal. Implementing a family separation policy to deter undocumented immigrants arbitrarily tears the sacred bond between parents and children. Such actions are brutal, offensive and abysmally fail to conform to notions of fairness and decency. The United Nations have formally called out the US for violating human rights standards over policy, which has attracted protestors in more than 2 dozen cities and 40 senators calling the administration out on it. With every single US policy like the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance,” we must ask ourselves: What is this policy’s real motivation? How will this affect those targeted? And is it morally just or unjust? If it’s unjust which I strongly believe, then we have a moral responsibility to counteract. And the first thing we must do is vote out whoever is responsible for creating them and their enablers. Immigration policies tearing families apart should never stand since it’s sheer cruelty. So now I ask my fellow Americans, where is your outrage?