Separating immigrant families is a cruel means to a cruel end

Children wait in line for a meal at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25. Children wait in line for a meal at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25. They are part of a caravan of migrants from Central American who crossed through Mexico to the border with the U.S.to present themselves to U.S. immigration and seek asylum because of increased violence in Central America. (CNS photo/David Maung)

Every time it seems the Trump administration’s immigration policy cannot get any worse, it does. The latest low is the announcement of a “zero tolerance” policy mandating the prosecution of anyone caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without legal authorization, including those who intend to seek asylum legally. If a family is caught, the parents are arrested and the children are taken away—to be “put into foster care or whatever,” as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has said.

The results have been heartbreaking. Even before the new policy was announced, more than 700 children had been taken from their parents in the period from last October to April. But heartbreak was always the point. The administration has been clear about its intention: to use family separation to deter migration. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions put it: “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

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Heartbreak was always the point. The administration has been clear about its intention: to use family separation to deter migration.

The zero-tolerance policy was announced shortly after the revelation that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of hundreds of children, mostly from Central America, whom the federal government had in its custody. Most were unaccompanied minors who had fled countries with high crime, political unrest and civil warfare. Now the Office of Refugee Resettlement admits it cannot find 1,475 of the 7,635 children it placed with adult sponsors.

In 2016, it was discovered that several Central American children once in federal custody had ended up in the hands of human traffickers and been forced into slave-like conditions in Ohio. Two years later, the fact that more migrant children may face similar risks reveals how little we as a society care about them.

Many of these “missing” children, however, may be with undocumented parents or relatives and now do not wish to be found by a government that they fear would deport them all. This is all the more true now that O.R.R., in another draconian policy change, has begun working hand in hand with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That means if a child who comes to the United States alone reunites with his or her family, O.R.R. could hand them all over for deportation.

To state it plainly: We cannot trust the U.S. government, under this administration, to do right by immigrant children.

Unlike the 1,475 minors the O.R.R. cannot account for, the children now being taken at the border are not unaccompanied. Instead, they are being taken from their parents, who are then detained or deported without their children. (Previously, most parents with children who were apprehended for crossing the border illegally were deported or freed together to seek legal asylum under a practice the Trump administration derisively calls “catch and release.”) Under this new policy, we will hear more stories like that of 29-year-old Estaban Pastor, who was deported last October to Guatemala without any knowledge of what had become of his 18-month-old son. Even if the child ends up in a safe foster care environment, a parent was still robbed of his child.

We will hear more stories like that of 29-year-old Estaban Pastor, who was deported last October to Guatemala without any knowledge of what had become of his 18-month-old son.

Separating families fractures the most important social relations that human beings have. Such a policy will not stop drug traffickers or gang members. Its only purpose is to cruelly deter would-be migrants and refugees from daring to seek their own American dream.

Donald J. Trump is not the first president to use cruelty to stem migration. When the U.S.-Mexico border was fortified in the mid-1990s under President Bill Clinton in the hopes of making the border more dangerous to cross, the result was predictable. Those who once would have crossed easily between Tijuana and San Diego or Juarez and El Paso were forced into the desert, where migrants have died of thirst, drowned in irrigation canals or even been killed by anti-immigrant vigilante militias. Since 2001, more than 2,000 migrants have died in the deserts along the border. In 2017, deaths went up even as the number of crossings fell.

President Barack Obama’s response to the wave of Central American refugees, largely unaccompanied minors, in 2014 was also anything but kind. Many of the horrific pictures of migrant children in ICE detention centers that have recently gone viral come from this period. The Obama administration locked up children, too, in horrific conditions.

Donald J. Trump is not the first president to use cruelty to stem migration. The Obama administration locked up children, too, in horrific conditions.

Since the 2014 wave, the United States has outsourced much of the dirty work of keeping out Central Americans to Mexican authorities, who have never been known for their humane treatment of migrants. It was the dangerous conditions facing migrants within Mexico that the now-infamous caravan, comprised mostly of Honduran refugees hoping to claim asylum in the United States, set out to draw attention to in their first place. Mr. Trump is seeking to use Mexico as a first line of defense against Central Americans, even while insulting Mexicans and insisting they pay for his promised border wall.

President Trump’s policies must be understood within the context of these longstanding efforts to deter migration. Family separation is just the logical next step. But how much cruelty will it take to convince those seeking a better life to turn back? Common sense dictates that deterrence will only be achieved when migrants are welcomed by our nation with a savagery and violence exceeding that from which they fled. By that point this country will have long since lost its soul.

The new policy of mandatory family separation puts the core bigotry of the Trump administration on display. Previous administrations accepted the unacceptable as long as the injustice was kept out of sight and out of mind, whether along the border or in family detention centers or in hidden ICE raids. For President Trump, however, showcasing the cruelty is the point. Anti-immigrant bigotry, particularly against Latino immigrants, is this administration’s animating principle, its political mandate and its policy objective.

Whatever else he may achieve, from foreign policy to the economy, President Trump’s cruel immigration policy will be a lasting stain on his legacy. And yet the blame is not his alone. True, it is only a small minority of Americans who, whether motivated by hate, fear or ignorance, demand cruelty toward immigrants in all our names. A majority of Americans support a path to citizenship and oppose cuts to legal immigration.

Yet not enough of my fellow Americans have prioritized these convictions when it comes time to vote. The tragedy and beauty of democracy is that we are all accountable for our government. For decades, our immigration system has been cruel. Now it is getting worse.

We must reckon with not having done enough and commit to doing more. We can all contact our elected officials, support immigrant rights organizations and prioritize immigrants with our votes. If the breaking of the sacred bonds of families do not move us to action, then what will?

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 weeks 3 days ago

Why should migrants get priority over those entering legally?

Maybe the ones to blame for the cruelty are those encouraging the illegal activity which has killed tens of thousands and leads to separated families. Maybe the anger should be with Catholic countries and their poor record governing their people. So should we be fearful of anyone proposing Catholic Social teaching.

Tim O'Leary
2 weeks 3 days ago

This is a terrible situation. While certainly not as bad as seeing dead children in the beaches of the Mediterranean and thousand of others at the bottom of the sea, it is still very wrong to separate children from their parents. Even President Trump hates it (he tweeted Sat "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.").

No doubt it will have the effect of reducing immigration of families across the borders, and the writer points out that every President has had children separated from parents, but this is draconian and should stop. We have a crazy way of handling illegal immigration and all sides need to come together to fix it, rather than grandstanding to make political points. I suggest the Bishops put pressure on Democrats to sit down with Trump and not let this drag on for the fall elections. If Kim Jong Un will meet half-way with Trump, why can't they?

Edward Graff
2 weeks 2 days ago

It was a real low point in Trump’s propaganda campaign when he tried to lay the blame for his own unpopular policy of separating families on Democrats. Those who pay attention to what the law actually is know that Democrats have nothing to do with it. Jeff Sessions and Trump creates this policy themselves and they bear full responsibility for it. They may eventually be called to account for it in court. The bishops should speak out against the plainly racist and immoral policies on display here and encourage all people of faith to vote these thugs out of office.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 1 day ago

Edward
You need to track the history of the laws and policies in place prior to and after Jan 20 2017...I believe you will find the relatively recent Zero Tolerance policy has very little effect not already imposed by the existing laws and policies prior to Jan 20 2017.
I suggest you carefully consider and read the Politifact reference cited by Glasgow below which substantially debunks your attempt to pin the tail on the elephant when it already belonged squarely on the donkey. There is no doubt that some children are separated from their parents if the parents enter illegally., but the very vast majority of those children sent to foster homes or referred to relatives came into the country without a parent as unaccompanied minors. I hasten to add that any American citizen who is arrested and incarcerated is also separated from his children. Illegal immigrants suffer no greater penalty.
Mr DeLoera -Brust intentionally confuses "asylum seeker" with "illegal entry" There are Not the same. Persons who present themselves at the border for Asylum undergo a process to determine eligibility ....as opposed to persons who cross the border illegally without presenting themselves for asylum processing . One who crosses the border illegally has already by that act (a misdemeanor for first offense and a felony for a second) forfeited his rights to claim "asylum". That has been the law for some 30 years. It is not a Trump policy. The Zero Tolerance Policy is simply enforcement of existing law and nothing new. You may not like that law and neither does Trump.......he has urged Congress to change it!!

Edward Graff
1 week 6 days ago

You’re completely wrong. “However, even when families lawfully present themselves at a port, the administration still separates children from parents. The children enter the custody of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and are placed into immigration proceedings. Many are babies and toddlers. This report by the American Academy of Pediatrics provides evidence that the forced separation has grave consequences for both parents and children.” (Washington Post) This practice of separating families legally presenting themselves is as new as it is indefensible. There is no law requiring it. Jeff Sessions himself boasted It would dissuade even legal asylum seekers. Also, Session’s policy of charging illegal immigrant families individually rather than as a group also meant that families are being separated in ways they never were before under any past administration. The policy is monstrous, that Politifact article does not address the most malicious aspects of this policy and you yourself are approving of a monstrous and objective evil. I’m done with letting right wing trolls with limited understanding of anything beyond what they read on racist websites spead lies and white nationalist talking points in respectable publications through the comments. Enough!

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 week 6 days ago

Edward
Google Flores Settlement of 1997 under which the 9th Court of Appeals required Gov to remove children from any detention after approximately 20 days. If the parents were still held because of issues relating to their asylum claim then indeed the Court required children to be released. Please note the date: This is NOT some new Trump policy ....It started under Clinton and Congress has done nothing to obviate this ruling/settlement. It was recently reviewed in the 9th Circuit in a suit against Sessions and it was reaffirmed as the law of the land. Further in Flores vs Loretta Lynch (June 2016) the 9Th Circuit held that the Flores Settlement applied to accompanied minors as well and that the compelled release of a child did not compel the release of his parents.
Should you care to look into it you will find that the Obama Administration was sued on numerous occasions from 2014-2016 for mistreatment of immigrant minors.
As to the objection to charging individuals rather than families, that too is a matter of law: families are not chargeable with a crime. The argument to the contrary is totally specious. It becomes apparent when the entire position of the DACA issue is based on the fact that the minors had "no choice-and therefore violated no law when their parent did". To hold otherwise would be to hold "the family" accountable!
As to Sessions "boasting of deterrence".....that, Edward, is exactly what every law is suppose to do : punish the guilty and deter others from violating the law!!!

Ellen B
1 week ago

I'm assuming you aren't being sarcastic. "... Even President Trump hates it (he tweeted Sat "Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law..." You are aware he ordered this step. He could also order it stopped. You are also aware that Republicans have the majority in the House, Senate & WH so can push through a change in the law without a single vote from a Democrat?

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 days 7 hours ago

Ellen
Republicans have 51 senators...actually currently 50 since Mcain is recuperating.....It takes 60 Senators to invoke Cloture which is needed to overcome the "filibuster rule". It is not therefore possible to push through a vote without a single Dmocratic vote. This quite unlike the first two years of the Obama Administration when the Democrats had the required 60 Senate seats.

Edward Graff
2 weeks 2 days ago

By imprisioning and separating families who present themselves at the border requesting asylum the United States is itself violating the law - its own and its agreements under international treaty. Beyond the clear moral unacceptability of the current administration’s policies, there is no legal justification either. I expect this action will come to be remembered in the same breath with the Japanese-American internment camps and the unrestrained violence directed against peaceful civil rights protesters in the 1950s. A deep shame for all of us.

Toby Gillis
2 weeks 2 days ago

Most of them only "present and request" once they are caught. When an American citizen is arrested for violating the law they are separated from their family, if convicted, sometimes for years. Those are the consequences of lawlessness.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks ago

Toby, you note, “When an American citizen is arrested for violating the law they are separated from their family…”

Family separation also regularly occurred during slavery. I fear linking family separation to violating the law pales in comparison to the link to slavery.

Edward Graff
2 weeks ago

This fact check does not convince. A single vague assertion from Nielsen that families seeking asylum are not being separated at present but could be if certain conditions were met is not convincing when compared with Jeff Sessions’ statements that he wanted families separated as a deterrent and that he was skeptical of all asylum seekers. John Kelly has made similar statements. As head of the executive branch Trump could issue an executive order clarying his policy at any time. We have only nakedly racist statements from him, sadly. He’s doing to asylum seekers exactly what he did to the DACA kids: issuing orders to round them up even though they’ve committed no crime and the Republican controlled congress has done nothing to protect them and is in fact happy to send them away. This isn’t law enforcement, it’s racism. We’ll remember all this trumpeting about the importance of the law when Mueller’s indictments start coming down.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 week 6 days ago

Edward
Google 9th Circuit Appeals / separation of children from illegal immigrants.........you will find that not only does the Court hold that such separation is required by law, in other cases it has held the minors involved have no right to an attorney.
The Sessions policy is simple enforcement of the law as written. I believe Sessions was the named defendant in the suits brought by the ACLU. Please keep in mind that the 9th Circuit is beyond liberal!!

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 1 day ago

So the “family-values” nation, its ”family-values” political parties, and its “family-values” religions is just one big hypocrisy. The immigration problems are real. The solutions fly in the face of “family values.” Our international diplomacy has actually been complicit in some of the nations experiencing the civil violence and conflict that causes people to flee them.

I don’t have the solutions to the problems. That’s what our elected representatives are supposed to be doing. But I do not support or applaud their current solutions to the problems. Nor do I applaud my Church for its deafening silence on the issue by its refusals to apply strictures on its faithful who support such policies. More hypocrisy!

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 1 day ago

Vince
Just what "strictures" are you suggesting the Church apply to its faithful?

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks ago

Hey Stuart,

When was the last time you heard from the pulpit that any act as brazen as taking a child from its parents or guardians or one which disturbs and/or destroys the family unit, except in the case of abuse or danger, is serious sin to be absolved? Never, I bet. Is it or isn't it? Never heard a Bishop or priest say one way or the other! You?

Today's NY Times had an op-ed piece on the history of this behavior in the United States - during slavery and during the destruction of the native American tribes and cultures. I know that Catholic schools participated in the latter. Did Catholic slaveholders participate in the former? I would imagine so, given that both individuals and entities held slaves.

So now it is happening, in many instances, to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and our Catholic Bishops make no roar of disapproval, either to the government or to those Catholic citizens who support the policy. Those are the strictures that I mean.

Vinny

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks ago

Vince

The Times article is a typical transmogrification of original progressive ideas into current evils.
The slavery analogy is an utterly inappropriate analogy/attempt at tar and feathering laws which you oppose.
The separation of the children of native Americans and aboriginal peoples to put them in "special schools" was in fact THE progressive idea de jour, promoted as late as the early 1900s by such progressive luminaries as Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson and the progressive print outlets of the times. It was the age of "beneficent do gooders civilizing the natives" . The entire Christian Church ( Unitarian/Congregationalists in Hawaii; Anglicans in Australia and Canada ; Catholic in The Americas) took the position such separation was not only not sinful , it was considered required, laudable and praiseworthy!
None these activities are even remotely connected to the illegal entry into the country and the consequential separation of children from parents. If an illegal alien is detained in circunscibed retention centers should the children be kept there as well? If they were you would be screaming about the incarceration of children who had no choice. . If you doubt that, then just consider the recent outrage over the picture of children on the floor behind chain link fence ( which actually occurred under Obama in2014 !). Would/should the Church support the incarceration of children with their parents? I think not. You seem to think that therefore the illegal entry parents should not be detained.

The great conundrum that is being presented is caused by the principal rule in Saul Alinsky "Rules for Radicals" : " If you have a law you despise , then create so many law breakers that the system is overwhelmed and collapses" . That is exactly what happened in Obama's last two years when the border was overwhelmed by tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors!
So now comes the issue you propose: Should the Church oppose the law because of this Alinsky effect? .....or should it encourage individuals to contribute time, money and personal service to assist these children? The issue of sin appears to be none existent unless one focuses on the parents who subjected their children to this consequence or the people of Faith who fail to help ameliorate these consequences as a corporal work.
You obviously think the Church should be railing against the law from the pulpit. As we have discussed before, you seem ready and willing to have the pulpit used to support the Social Justice issues you advance but not against laws such as abortion which you view as imposing Catholic morals. I am personally opposed to any "legislating from the pulpit". I am in favor of preaching the moral values of the Church to parishioners and the legal or political consequences that follow are then strictly a matter/result of personal conscience informed by such preaching.
Lastly, you have muddled the discussion to mixing the words law and policy...we are speaking of laws and not policy ...the so called "Zero Tolerance policy" is a simple statement that the law will be enforced. The prior policy was one of no enforcement . Under Obama the predicted Alinsky result was effectively honored and even sought precisely because there were insufficient votes in Congress to change the law.

J Cosgrove
1 week 6 days ago

The immigration problems are real

Yes, but they are created by the left. So is the "one big hypocrisy" really the left claiming that the other side is at fault. One side wants law and order, the other side wants chaos. One side has no solutions but ridicules any solution that would solve the problem.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks ago

Notice how some comments above focus on the “law”. How did we end up with a “law” to secure the border from kids?

Deterring immigrant kids perhaps has less in common with border security and more in common with a dying Wisconsin teacher union and Kansas education budget cuts. Fewer kids mean weaker teacher unions and smaller education budgets.

Has education itself come under attack by the aristocracy?

Shayne LaBudda
2 weeks ago

Education is under assault, DeVos as Sec'y is evidence enough of that. Wisconsin's teacher's pension fund has been one of the best managed in the country, and therefore liquid. Its liquidity was made out to be evidence of the teachers being overpaid and the source of the state's budgetary straits, so Wisconsin ended up with Act10, which school districts all over the state now recognize as a disaster. UW System is being refashioned for job training at the behest of the now deified 'job creators'. A poorly educated populace is far more easily pacified and prevented from looking behind the curtain.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 week 6 days ago

Chuck
The famous Adams quote seems to be sufficient response: "We are a nation of laws, not of men"
Change the laws if you can, but don't ignore those which are on the books. Bama promised that his first action would be to fix the immigration system.....
He had full control of the government with the Democrats holding a Veto Proof majority.....Schumer was the Chairman of the Senate Committee in charge of immigration. The result: Nothing...not a single proposal....not a single piece of legislation. Save you outrage for the progressives who broke their pledge!

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