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.”
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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