Stories about immigrant children, forcibly taken from their families in federal detention made the “Twitterverse” explode with outrage this weekend. It focused public attention on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy designed to deter unauthorized migrant families.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, then we’re going to prosecute you,” said United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a conference in Arizona on May 7. “That child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
“Zero tolerance” actually started last year, ramping up, to replace the so-called catch-and-release policy that had let most families go free, while their deportation case was heard in civil court. But “zero tolerance” has triggered a backlash legal, political and emotional.
“There’s no need for detention of either parent or child in this situation, and there’s certainly no need for a blanket policy that rips 18-month-olds out of their parents’ arms at the border,” said Farrin Anello, senior staff attorney at the New Jersey Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s that policy and that separation of parents and children that is going to cause extreme trauma to people who are already extremely vulnerable and who’ve experienced persecution in their country of origin,” said Shannon McKinnon, supervising attorney at the American Friends Service Committee.
“President Trump is instead creating a new class of de facto foster children and manufacturing a child welfare crisis. More than 700 children have been separated from their parents. At least 100 are younger than four years old. Tearing innocent children away from their parents is shameful, it is cruel and it is un-American,” testified Sen. Bob Menendez before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration on May 23. “Once these children reach the border, we must afford them due process.”
United States law states when Border Patrol arrests parents, kids can’t go to jail with them. They become unaccompanied minors, and end up with the Department of Homeland Security.
The President blamed Democrats at a roundtable on immigration law on May 16, saying, “Those are the bad laws the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law. It’s a horrible thing that we have to break up families.”
“There is no law that has been passed by Democrats forcing separation of families. There is no law, period, that mandates detention of people who are entering this country — much less, separation of those individuals from their children,” explained Shannon McKinnon, supervising attorney at American Friends Service Committee.
Meanwhile, what happens to migrant kids who do end up in government custody? The Office of Refugee Resettlement calls them UACs, or unaccompanied alien children, and most stay with sponsors, relatives in the U.S. or with foster families. Alarmingly, a recent audit by ORR of more than 7,600 UACs could not account for 1,475 of them, or about 19 percent. It spurred trending hashtags like #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren.
Advocates fight back in court and with sanctuary.
“It’s appalling, but it’s also something we’ve seen over, and over and over again,” said Associate Pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, Amos Caley.
Caley’s church has offered sanctuary to refugee families seeking asylum. He calls the current U.S. immigration policy inhumane.
“What we’re seeing is entire generations of kids and parents that are being systematically traumatized by not just policy, but I would say, violence,” said Caley.
What now? Apparently it’s a political stalemate, but this debate, along with what to do about DACA and the “Dreamers” could become a major issue in the upcoming midterm elections.