Americans need to focus on helping migrant children
CHICAGO — It’s the end of January. The government shutdown is dominating headlines, holiday credit-card bills are coming due, and we’re gearing up for the Super Bowl.
Life seems very different from last summer, when babies, toddlers and other children seeking refuge were being held in deplorable conditions in government facilities after being apprehended at the border.
Yet they’re still there.
In fact, a new government report says there were thousands more immigrant children purposely separated from their parents at the border than had previously been stated. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, has said it is unable to provide a more specific number than the nearly 3,000 kids that the government has previously enumerated.
As those who monitor the government’s treatment of immigrants have always surmised, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy — resulting in family separations — was specifically designed to deter migrants from Central America and Mexico from attempting to plead for asylum at the border.
The truth was revealed in a leaked policy memo given to NBC by the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. The memo said that the plan was to separate the children from their parents to ensure that the kids would be unable to demand their legal right to asylum hearings — or represent themselves without parents or legal counsel at such hearings.
The memo also discussed clamping down on several existing programs, including making it harder for U.S. families to take “unaccompanied alien children” into their homes while their claims are processed, restricting the Special Immigrant Juveniles program (which makes green cards available to children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent) and expediting asylum claims so that immigrants “would not have years with the ability to work in this U.S. while their cases are pending.” An unknown commenter noted the Obama administration attempted to implement this tactic but “failed at in 2014.”
The point was that “if … processes [expediting asylum cases] were implemented consistently, there would be substantial deterrent impact” against potential asylum seekers, according to the memo.
If you aren’t keeping score of the Trump administration’s misstatements and outright lies about the border situation, let’s recall that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen denied last June that the administration was doing anything different from the Obama administration. She also said that the Trump administration did “not have a policy of separating families at the border” but was simply enforcing existing law.
Last week, after the leaked memo circulated, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia refiled a prior complaint as a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all the unaccompanied immigrant children “who have made the long and perilous journey to the United States surviving trauma and fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, only to find themselves detained by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at sites around the country.”
It states that “as a result of these policies, ORR has held tens of thousands of children across the country in custody for excessive amounts of time and has illegally and improperly denied them the opportunity to reunite with their families.” It also asks that no more children be separated from their families.
“We were all horrified last summer, watching babies being ripped from their mothers’ arms, but we’re seeing that the same thing is still happening,” said Mary Bauer, the deputy legal director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Despite what people think, [the Trump administration] didn’t get rid of the most problematic parts of the policy. What’s in place is still a quixotic system that isn’t being transparent about why kids aren’t being released to family members and, sometimes, to parents. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they’re told the children will get out but then there’s always something else [that prevents reunification].”
The Trump administration has always contended that its tough guidelines for releasing children are designed to ensure that kids don’t end up in the hands of human traffickers and other nefarious predators.
But if our government is detaining children and exploiting them by using them as deterrents in a failed effort to discourage migrants from fleeing their violent, ravaged homelands, then who are the real traffickers and nefarious predators in this scenario?
The answer will depend on whether the American people can stay tuned in to the suffering of the lost migrant children long enough to demand they be returned to their parents.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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Sticks in the mud. Overly cautious. Obstacles to progress.