The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” policy of breaking up the families of illegal immigrants at the U.S./Mexican border has resulted in many more children being held in different federal facilities from their parents.
The Department of Health and Human Services reported a 21 percent increase in youth detentions, from 8,886 on April 29 to 10,773 in the last week of May. The children are being taken to shelters operated by the government agency, while adult migrants go to jails to await prosecution. The shelters are nearly full, with a 95 percent occupancy rate. HHS is scrambling to provide space for additional beds, and considering sending the kids to military bases, an agency official told the Washington Post. An HHS spokesman said there is “an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states,” and that “additional temporary housing is only sought as a last resort when current locations are reaching capacity.”
The children include some who came to the United States by themselves, as well as those who arrived with their parents. From May 6-19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 638 adults who brought 658 children with them. HHS came under fire recently for allegedly losing track of nearly 1,500 underage migrants. The agency explained that the children had been placed with sponsors. “There's no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids,” HHS official Steven Wagner said.
Many undocumented parents are wary of coming forward to retrieve their children because they fear deportation. “If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that de facto calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” Wagner said. “Plus, we have the problem of people fraudulently claiming to be parents when, in fact, they’re not.”
Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, accused the Homeland Security Department of “injecting a law-enforcement approach into this system.” Children are spending an average of 56 days in the shelters, a number that continues to increase. In 2017, authorities locked up more than 40,000 kids and reported placing 93 percent of them with sponsors. The sponsor was a parent about half of the time, while other family relatives took in 40 percent of the children.
Officials pointed out that the policy of prosecuting undocumented immigrants started before President Trump took office. In 2016, under President Obama, the government filed criminal charges against more than 20 percent of those who were caught crossing the border illegally. During Obama's second term, there were about 70,000 cases a year.
Young slammed Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for drastically ramping up the enforcement effort. “What’s happened is the exception to the rule is now becoming the rule,” she said. “Here, they’re doing zero-tolerance policy to punish families and send a message to their home countries: 'Don’t do this.' It’s so disingenuous to couch this as a continuation. This is the most aggressive response to Central American migration we’ve seen to date.”
Trump's team insists that its treatment of the children is justified. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has argued that separating immigrant families and sending them to separate detention facilities serves as a deterrent for others. When asked about the psychological toll on the kids, Kelly vowed that they would “be taken care of; put in foster care or whatever.”
Meanwhile, the president is blaming his political opponents for the situation. “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.,” he tweeted. Lee Gelernt, an immigration lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, responded: “Trump called the practice ‘horrible,’ so if he thinks it’s so horrible he ought to end it and not make children pawns as a negotiating tool. Little kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and they’re hauled off. Parents are telling their older kids, ‘Be brave, be brave.' It’s as bad as anything I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this work.”
The ACLU has filed a class-action suit against the government, demanding an end to the family-separation policy. The organization was already suing the Trump administration in defense of an unidentified native of Congo who was jailed for months while seeking asylum in the United States. A Homeland Security official claimed that splitting up families is necessary “to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities.” Gelernt made the case that the separation policy has “no legitimate purpose.”
The ACLU also is representing a Brazilian mother and her 14-year-old son, who were apprehended and held at different facilities. The woman spent time in several detention centers in Texas, while her son was taken to a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Chicago. “Every day that J. is separated from his mother causes him greater emotional and psychological harm, and could potentially lead to permanent emotional trauma,” the ACLU wrote.