The more we hear about the Trump administration’s immigration policies of taking children from their parents, arresting their parents, and taking the kids into custody, the more they sound too cruel to be real. And the Associated Press has acquired internal Department of Homeland Security data covering the program from May 5-June 9. During this time, 2,342 children were taken from their immigrant parents on the border. That’s an average of 65 kids per day separated from their families and often sent to foster homes or held in detention centers. This might actually be an undercount since these numbers only reflect families separated when parents were sent to criminal custody for prosecution on illegal entry. Families presenting themselves for asylum by coming to a port of entry before being separated weren’t included.
While the family separation policy may be new, it’s nonetheless building on an existing system that attention to family separation has brought more awareness to the underlying problems within the US immigration system that have been going on for some time. For the past several years, a growing number of Central Americans have been coming into the US without papers who often are families seeking asylum. Asylum seekers and families are both accorded particular protections in US and international law, which make it impossible for the government to simply send them back. They also put strict limits on the length of time, and conditions, in which children can be kept in immigration detention. When the Obama administration attempted to respond to the “crisis” of families and unaccompanied children crossing the border in the summer of 2014, it put hundreds of families in immigration detention, a practice which had basically ended several years before. But federal courts stopped the administration from holding families for months without justifying the decision to keep them in detention. So most families were eventually released while their cases were pending. In some cases, they disappeared into the US rather than showing up for their own court dates.
As we speak, the Trump administration works to detain as many immigrants arriving in the United States without papers as possible. Even if they’re seeking asylum, which they have the legal right to do. But because a decades-long court settlement requires the government to release children from immigration detention “without necessary delay” parents taking care of them would have to be released as well. However, by sending parents into Justice Department custody for criminal prosecution, the Trump administration forces itself to separate parents from their children. Because kids can’t be detained with parents in federal jail, they’re treated as “unaccompanied alien minors” as if they crossed the border alone. Thus, as their parents are languishing in federal prison awaiting trial and sentence, the children are sent into custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. As far as Trump’s cronies are concerned, this is a fitting punishment.
Yet, their logic overlooks the fact that when asylum seekers try to follow the law by presenting themselves at official border crossings to ask for asylum, Border Patrol agents often tell them they can’t come in. This isn’t an accident. For at multiple ports of entry in Texas to California, the Trump administration tells asylum seekers that they don’t have room to process them today which keeps people waiting outside for days on end without any indication as to when they’ll be allowed to seek asylum legally. According to reports, some asylum seekers are being physically blocked from setting foot on US soil, which would give them the legal right to pursue an asylum claim. So what choice would that leave them but to cross the border illegally and present their asylum claim to Border Patrol instead? And even families trying to seek asylum at ports of entry can’t be assured they won’t be separated anyway. While the Trump administration claims that it only separates families entering legally if they’re concerned about the child’s safety or feel there’s insufficient evidence that the adult is their legal guardian. But it’s not clear how they make that determination and there’s no proof they’re abusing that discretion either.
However, family separation is neither sudden nor arbitrary. The Trump administration claims it’s taking extraordinary measures in response to the temporary surge it’s entirely possible that this will become the new normal. From October 2017 to May 2018, it’s reported that at least 2,700 families have been separated at the border thanks to its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Though it doesn’t seem like all families apprehended by Border Patrol get separated, the pace might be picking up. The Trump administration has stepped up detention of asylum seekers (and immigrants period). But because there are such strict limits on keeping children in immigration detention, it’s had to release most of the families caught. So their solution has been to prosecute large numbers of immigrants for illegal entry, including in a break from previous administrations, large numbers of asylum seekers. That allows the Trump administration to ship kids off to ORR than keep them in immigration detention.
In theory, unaccompanied immigrant children are sent to ORR within 72 hours of being apprehended. They’re kept in government facilities, or short-term foster care for days or weeks while ORR official try to identify their nearest relative in the US who can take them in while their immigration case is being resolved. But in practice, the system dealing with unaccompanied immigrant children was already overwhelmed, if not outright broken. ORR facilities were already 95% full with 11,000 children held as of June 7. And according to the New York Times, the government, “has reserved an additional 1,218 beds in various places for migrant children, including some at military bases.” In fact, the agency has been overloaded for years since its 2014 backlog precipitated the child migrant, “crisis” when Border Patrol agents had to care for kids for days. An American Civil Liberties Union report released in May documented hundreds of claims of “verbal, physical, and sexual abuse” of unaccompanied children by Border Patrol.
There are also questions about how carefully ORR vets the sponsors to whom it ultimately releases children. A PBS Frontline investigation found cases where the agency released teenagers to labor traffickers. ORR told Congress in April that of 7,000 of children it attempted to contact in fall 2017, 1,475 couldn’t, which led to allegations that the government “lost” children or that they’d been handed over to traffickers. Though for the most part, it’s more probable that the families the ORR wasn’t able to contact deliberately decided to go off the map. Unaccompanied children who came to the US mostly consisted of teenagers with close relatives here to reunite with. According to a 2014-2015 Office of Inspector General report, 60% of unaccompanied kids were sent to their parent and 99% went to close friends or relatives while 1% were put in long-term foster care.
However, this isn’t true of children coming to the US with their parents who don’t have to be old enough to make the journey on their own and are separated from them. For ORR isn’t used to changing diapers. In May, the New York Times wrote that the government put out request proposals for “shelter care providers, including group homes and transitional foster care,” to house children separated from parents. One organization is placing children with Maryland and Michigan foster families and plans to expand to several other states. Some have fostered unaccompanied children but they’re not used to children who’ve just been separated from their parents.
While some families have been reunited, the Trump administration is sending very mixed signals about how families could be reunited and whether it’s even trying to make that happen at all. According to one ACLU lawsuit over family separation and immigration detention, a DOJ official told the judge that, “once a parent is in ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody and the child is taken into the Health and Human Services system, the government does not try to reunite them, and instead attempts to place the child with another relative in the United States — if the child has one.” But ICE and DHS claim that once parents finish their criminal sentences for illegal entry or reentry, they can reunite with their children in civil immigration detention while pursuing their asylum case. Nor do they seem to have a system to bring families back together. One flyer in Texas given to parents offered a number to call to locate their children. Yet, the number was wrong and didn’t lead to ORR. In fact, it was an ICE tip line. Even if a parent can call ORR and the agency can identify their child, they may not be able to call the parent back. Since immigrants in detention don’t have phone access (though federal judges urged the government to provide them so they can find their kids). Some parents face deportation without their children while some children are getting sent back without their parents.
In response to the outcry, Donald Trump has responded to criticisms on family separations, by claiming that a “Democratic law” requires him to do it, and that if Congress doesn’t like it, it can change the law. However, that is just Trump’s way to deflect blame and avoid responsibility since that statement is simply not true. Because there’s no law requiring immigrant family separations. The Trump administration had made the decision to charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry and the one to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than waiting to see that they qualify. They’ve been asking Congress to change laws granting extra protections to families, unaccompanied children, and asylum seekers since it came into office. And they’ve blamed them for stopping Trump from securing the border the way he’d like (with a big stupid wall which won’t contribute to anything beneficial whatsoever). Furthermore, these aren’t necessarily “Democratic laws” either with a law addressing unaccompanied children passed overwhelmingly in 2008 that was signed by George W. Bush. While restriction on family detentions is the result of federal litigation. In this context, the law isn’t forcing Trump to separate families but keeping him from doing what he’d really want to do like sending families back or keeping them in detention together. So he’s resorting to Plan B.
Some Trump administration officials say they’re prosecuting immigrants and separating families to stop people from illegally coming to the US between ports of entry. This argument sounds like common sense since it allows the administration to avoid awkward legal or moral questions on trying to keep people out of the country. Yet, there’s no evidence this strategy works. While rolling out the “zero-tolerance” policy in early May, they claimed a pilot program along one border sector reduced crossings by 64% but they haven’t produced the numbers backing it up. Not to mention, as I described earlier, the Trump administration’s sending mixed signals about whether it wants people to use ports of entry to seek asylum legally. Since some asylum seekers have been separated from their kids doing just that while others were encouraged not to. Though they’ve promised to prosecute anyone who submits a “fraudulent” claim, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that he suspects many, if not most, asylum claims are fraudulent. The statistics the Trump administration uses to back up that there’s been a “surge” since las year sometimes count both people getting caught by Border Patrol between ports o entry and those presenting themselves without papers at ports of entry for asylum. The implication is that the current crackdown will reduce both. This implies that a point of this policy is to stop families from entering the US seeking asylum, period.
If you want to know how the Trump administration is justifying family separations at a legal standpoint, they simply claim that criminal defendants don’t have a right to have their children with them in jail. But the question is whether they have the legal authority to put asylum-seeking parents in jail awaiting trial to begin with, knowing they’re splitting them from their children. Human rights organizations including the United Nations have argued that prosecuting asylum seekers as criminals violates international law. Yet, no presidential administration has agreed with that interpretation since the Obama administration prosecuted some asylum seekers as well, just not as often or with the Trumpian dedicated zeal. However, federal courts have ruled that it’s illegal to keep an immigrant in detention in hopes to deterring others, instead of making an individual assessment on whether the immigrant needs to be detained. That might pave the way for advocates to fight back against family separation or at least force the government to start helping families get reunited after their parents have been separated. In the ACLU’s lawsuit victory in June, the judge made it clear that he believed that if the allegations against the administration were true, they might very well be unconstitutional on violation of family integrity, which courts have found is implicitly part of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “liberty” without due process of law. Though it has favorable odds, that doesn’t mean the case will succeed. Unless something else happens to change the policy before then, any opinion will be appealed and will likely go to the Supreme Court. Still, even if the ACLU does succeed, it won’t stop family separations at the border. The lawsuit argues that it’s unconstitutional for parents in immigration detention to be separated from their children. But not that it’s unconstitutional to charge parents with illegal entry and take them into a separate criminal court. A victory would merely obligate the federal government to reunite parents with their children once they’ve served their illegal entry sentence. Yet, whether the government can actually do that is another question. And for families, that’s less preferable than not being separated at all.
Though the Trump administration presents its crackdown as a temporary response to a temporary “surge” of illegal border crossers, it’s simply a return to normal levels of the past several years after a brief dip in 2017. To assume that the administration will be satisfied with border apprehension levels in a few months and wind down the aggressive tactics it’s started to use would be foolish. If we had a different president running a different White House, the outrage family separation has generated would result in the policy coming to a quiet end or at least curbed. Since it’s galvanizing not just progressives but also conservatives as well. But Trump’s administration rarely backs down from something because people are mad about it. More often than not, Donald Trump takes it as an indication he’s doing something right, even if he’s not. While Democrats scramble to propose bills limiting prosecution and separation, the issue isn’t inspiring the bipartisan momentum that Trump’s decision to end DACA last fall did. Thus, it’s extremely unlikely that Congress will pass a law stopping family separations at the border. And when it became clear the Trump administration was engaging in widespread family separations, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s vague and inaccurate comments on sending the kids to “foster care or whatever” were especially telling.
It’s possible that the Trump administration simply won’t have the resources to keep this many people in detention for so long or to keep prosecuting more and more people for a crime that’s already overwhelming federal dockets. Since ICE’s detention centers are already running out of space. Indefinite family separations will almost certainly overwhelm the already precarious system dealing with migrant children. Border Patrol and ORR won’t get the resources they need to address the new jobs they’re asked to take on by treating children separated from parents as “unaccompanied” kids. Yet, it’s also possible it’ll simply burn through the money it has and demand Congress for more in the name of protecting the US from an illegality invasion. The Trump administration knows it’s separating families and doesn’t believe it’s their job to reunite them.
Nonetheless, the cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies is almost impossible to imagine. Could you understand the parent separated from their child having no real sense of seeing them again? Could you comprehend the child stuck in a country whose language they don’t speak and in the care of strangers while their parents are gone? Such pain is incredible and traumatizing to experience. One Honduran man killed himself in his detention cell after Border Patrol took his 3-year-old son. CNN reported of Border Patrol agents ripping a breastfeeding woman’s infant daughter from her arms. A New York Times story tells of a boy who wouldn’t shower for 2 days or change his clothes after being separated from his parents and placed into foster care.
Yet, as much as the family separation crisis is about immigration policy and our country’s values, it’s also a health crisis. Separating parents and their children comes with considerable health risks. Every bit of a child’s health depends on a foundational relationship with a caring adult like their parents. When they’re separated, kids’ stress hormones start working overtime and are constantly on red alert. This causes disruption in the way that neural synapses connect with each other in their brain architecture. That can lead to developmental delay. Traumatized children develop speech slower, their motor skills don’t come along as quickly as they should, and they have difficulty creating proper attachments to other human beings. The younger the child is and the longer they’re in this kind of situation, the more difficult it is to reverse it. These experiences can have lifelong consequences like affecting a child’s ability to learn, being more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, and possibly could be at a higher risk of heart disease or cancer when they become adults. When a breastfeeding mother is torn from her infant, her breasts can be swollen and painful, which can develop to mastitis where the remaining milk can evolve into breast abscesses that must be removed via surgical drainage. Then there’s the fact that whatever children are telling social workers, doctors, or clinical psychologists at the border can be shared by ORR with DHS and federal immigration authorities. Under any other presidential administration this wouldn’t be a big deal since families were typically reunited during the Obama years. But under Donald Trump, the policy is increasingly used to detain or deport undocumented minors.
Donald Trump has implied that his justification for separating families seeking asylum, and his restrictionist ideology for even legal immigrants, is to prevent the United States from enduring what’s happening in Europe. For he falsely claims, immigrants there have brought with them a wave of violence that’s driving up the crime rate (except it’s not). He’s often referred to such outlandish claim as “politically incorrect” but that’s not it. Since he and key members of his administration are embracing what used to be a fringe theory held by the furthest of the far right. To these white supremacists, they argue that white people are being “systematically” erased by their inferiors, and thus require an influx of white babies and new white immigrants (at the exclusion of nonwhite immigrants) to survive. To some, white Americans and white culture, are threatened by a slow-running “genocide” via demographic replacement. Though this theory is just a bunch of racist bullshit with no historical basis whatsoever, it has adherents in the alt-right (which they evoked in Charlottesville with “You will not replace us”), across conservative media, and even in Congress and the White House. But such ideas are old, rooted in scientific racism and fears of interracial sex and babies once held by Woodrow Wilson and white supremacists alike. But now they play apart in creating government policy.
Donald Trump’s racism may be that of a 72-year-old man who thinks five nonwhite teenage boys should be executed for raping a jogger despite DNA evidence to the contrary. But his external racism is heavily influenced by adherents of an ideology that believes whiteness is the essential character of America (it isn’t), with direct and detrimental impacts on discussions regarding immigration policy. More importantly, Trump’s language and policies echo a worldview holding that whiteness is more valuable to participation in the American experiment than anything else, even a deep and abiding belief in American ideals.
While most of the GOP might not be comfortable using terminology like “white genocide” and “racial realism,” because many conservatives don’t share those views. They may see Donald Trump’s comments as elitist, unkind, divisive, and fly in the face of American values, even if racial issues aren’t on their priority list. But many on the right don’t see it that way as Jeff Sessions implements racist policies in the Department of Justice while Brietbart fans the flames of racial discord with “black crime” article labels and stories about imminent dangers posed by nonwhite immigrants. Nonetheless, Trump’s adoption of these racist views of the alt-right is at the core of the current immigration debate and has a direct impact on his immigration policy. In addition, it’s making the dealmaking process virtually impossible with Democrats and Republicans who desperately want to avoid any arguments racializing immigration policy. They want the debate about immigration to be about border security and genuine threats to American security, since it makes compromise imaginable even possible. But the debate over immigration is actually about a belief that nonwhite immigrants pose an existential danger to America and Americanness as a whole and that “demographics” require nonwhite immigrants to be expelled while white immigrants can be welcomed with open arms. You can’t negotiate with people who believe that an America letting in people from “shithole” countries isn’t the America they know and love. Despite that an America letting in people from “shithole” countries is exactly what America was built on for why else would millions Americans be here?
Keep in mind that Donald Trump’s core argument on his cruel and inhumane immigration policy is that reducing the number of foreign-born people living in the United States will leave native-born people richer and safer. This is full of crap which unfortunately many white people embrace. While Trump delivers concrete and material benefits to wealthy business executives in the form of tax cuts and industry-friendly regulations, what he’s offering to his white working-class backers is that cracking down on foreigners will solve their problems and that his willingness to suffer the condemnation by cosmopolitans is a token of dedication to their interests. In reality, it’s just a way for him to keep his working-class voters supporting him without doing anything to solve their real problems and possibly allowing his corporate allies to screw them over in the end. The kids held hostage are in large part, pawns in a game by which Trump is trying to coerce Democrats into backing sweeping reforms to legal immigration. The core of these reforms is to simultaneously switch the United States to what he calls a “merit-based” system, essentially raising the average educational attainment of legal immigrants while also cutting the overall number of immigrants. Yet, the net impact of this means reducing America’s GDP by about 0.3% in the long run while reducing overall GDP much more than that because the population is lower, meaning a more difficult time supporting the country’s retirement programs. Besides, immigrants contribute a lot to the American economy in way their native-born counterparts take for granted.
Then again, Donald Trump’s core pitch on immigration is always more about fear than economics, but here too, his politics are a disaster. While he often states how immigrants bring crime to this country, study after study shows he’s wrong. Mostly because immigrants legal and otherwise commit far fewer crimes than their native-born counterparts since they have a higher incentive to obey the law. Though gangs like MS-13 do exist, virtually everything Trump has done on immigration is counterproductive to addressing the problem of transnational organized crime. In its final years, the Obama administration ordered immigration services to lay off the vast majority of undocumented immigrants and target their efforts at apprehending violent criminals. Obama’s goal ultimately foiled by the courts and Trump’s election was to give work permits to millions and then have immigration law enforcement on the gangs Trump claims to be fighting. But immigration enforcement didn’t like the idea of being turned into some kind of auxiliary police force. They successfully stymied Obama’s efforts to concentrate on violent criminals, helped get Trump elected, and now we hear things like deporting 62-year-old permanent resident over a 20-year misdemeanor and a Kansas professor who’s lived here for over 30 years over a 2012 traffic violation instead of focusing on gang members. Even worse, by doing things like canceling Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of long-settled immigrants (like DACA), Trump is expanding the universe of nonviolent undocumented immigrants and making it that much less likely that law enforcement resources will be used against violent criminals.
Obviously, tearing children from their parents’ arms doesn’t poll well. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work for Donald Trump. His white working-class base sees a world where cultural elites have marginalized their concerns in favor of caring a lot more about the problems of immigrants and minorities because they see a zero-sum battle for attention and sympathy in which caring about immigrants’ problems means neglecting their own. Except that’s really not the case at all. Though such voters may not necessarily approve of the cruel treatment of Central American asylum seekers, but at the end of the day, the message that Trump is perhaps excessively cruel to foreigners emphasizes the notion he’s on their side. Except that he’s not because Trump knows how to deliver concrete wins to interest groups he cares about whether that’s letting health insurance companies discriminate against those with preexisting conditions, letting financial advisers deliberately give clients bad advice, letting chemical companies poison children’s brains, or delivering tax cuts that push profits to record levels. By contrast, nothing he’s doing on immigration will help anyone or anything. He’s got no answer to the rise of asylum seekers and is seeking broad policy changes that will lower wages and incomes. Anyone who knows a thing about Trump’s career, knows there’s absolutely nothing to suggest he has an aptitude for or interest in genuine problem solving. He’s a flimflam man who’s had to pay out $21 million for civil fraud in his fake university lawsuit before taking office and is now facing a new fraud lawsuit over his fake charity. This cruelty, too, is just a fraudulent branding scheme meant to make people who resent immigrants think he cares about them when he doesn’t. Immigrant kids will pay the highest price of all this deception. But in reality, nobody is going to gain, except Trump himself.
Yet, while Donald Trump and his administration may be bereft of common decency, ethics, or empathy, that doesn’t mean we have to be. While American history has incidents where non-white families have been forcibly separated, that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it. Nor do we have to tolerate immigration enforcement putting children in tent cities or cages. If we don’t want this family separation policy to define who we are as a nation, then we must speak out on this appalling cruelty and make our voices heard. Otherwise, do we have any decency?