IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump administration's child separations a 'moral stain' — and a voter issue

“Our country is beginning to explore what pro-life means," evangelical minister Luis Cortés said. "We have done something immoral and must fix it."
Image: New Tent Camps Go Up In West Texas For Migrant Children Separated From Parents
Children and workers walk at a tent encampment built to house migrant children near Tornillo, Texas, on June 19, 2018.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

After taking a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic, the reminder that the Trump administration intentionally separated babies and children from their parents to deter Central American migration is back in the news, two weeks before the presidential election.

This week, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers told a federal judge they have yet to locate the parents of 545 children and that the overwhelming majority of the children’s parents were deported.

The revelation — while many people are voting early — inserts an issue into the election cycle that was such a lightning rod in the 2018 midterms, Republicans tried distancing themselves from the administration’s separation strategy.

“This exemplifies a policy that reflects an incredible disregard for certain values, certain rights," said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a Catholic nonprofit shelter that assisted families who had been separated. "It is asking the United States to become something, someone we should not become and it needs to be something that we somehow resoundingly reject."

As the administration’s systemic separating of families returns to the forefront of the American consciousness, Trump will have to contend with the re-emergence of images of horrified parents pleading to know the whereabouts of their children, the sounds of crying children as they are mocked by an agent, children caged in pens of chain-link fencing and stories of young children who died while in custody.

"I would hope people would consider when they make their decisions on who to vote for,” Garcia said.

A group of artists has made child separations and other immigration detention measures part of an anti-Trump campaign targeting Latino, Black and young voters. The campaign, Remember What They Did, which includes artists like Shepard Fairey, is posting more than 200 billboards and thousands of street art posters in North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, while the group urges people to vote. The same group posted anti-Trump billboards in Cleveland before the first presidential debate.

Image:" Billboard, migrant children
A billboard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin criticizing Pres. Donald Trump's immigration detention policies and its impact on children, by graphic designer and artist Claudio Martinez.Bob Glick / Artists United for Change

“The immigration policy of the Trump administration is rooted in bigotry, hate and xenophobia. These policies have resulted in over 69,000 migrant children — primarily from Central America — being separated from their parents for months and in some cases, permanently,” Milwaukee artist Claudio Martinez said in a statement.

The child separations began as a pilot project in 2017 and then became national practice as the administration prosecuted all adults, regardless of whether they had children, under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy against unauthorized border crossings. Parents who showed up at the border requesting asylum also were separated from their children, including the original plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit.

NBC News reported in August that White House adviser Stephen Miller exhorted senior administration officials to decide by a show of hands whether to separate the children and parents whose numbers were spiking. Earlier this month, NBC News also revealed that top Department of Justice officials helped drive the administration’s policy that led to the child-parent separations.

“Make no mistake, this unconscionable cruelty was intentional,” Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman, said in a news conference assembled Wednesday to respond to the ACLU filing. “Babies were ripped away from their mothers as an example to the world of what would happen if you try to seek asylum in America under Donald Trump.”

"The fact is this is an astounding human rights abuse that has occurred within the United States against asylum seekers mostly —and has shaken the world’s perception of the United States as a beacon for refuge,” Castro, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.

On the same call, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said that of the 545 children, the ACLU has been unable to locate the child or a parent for 362 of them and of the remaining 183, the child has been found, but not a parent.

In a statement, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called the administration’s losing track of the children “an outrage, a moral failing and a stain on our national character.”

“There are many issues that are complicated, but some things are black and white. Families belong together,” Biden stated, saying keeping families together is at the core of his immigration policy, that includes “securing the border without treating immigrants as less than human.”

The Trump campaign pushed back on the ACLU’s filing, saying Wednesday that many of the parents of the children declined to accept their children back. The Department of Homeland Security argued that of 485 children, none of their parents wanted the children back. But Gelernt disputed that, repeating that none of the parents of the 545 had been found.

Trump has often retreated to the issue of immigration enforcement to rally his base, but the child separations were unpopular with Americans and led to Trump rescinding the policy.

“Only a minority of rabid immigrant haters and bigots are really going to celebrate something like this,” Mario H. Lopez, president of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Fund, said. “It’s certainly not something suburban moms want to hear.”

Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science and the associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, said the nation is so polarized that voters already have picked sides. But with the election resting on who is going to get more people out to vote, the issue is one that can drive up numbers.

“Republicans are not going to mention it,” Cortina said.

But others will. The Rev. Luis Cortés, founder and CEO of Esperanza, a Hispanic faith-based evangelical network based in Pennsylvania, said the separation of a child from the parents “is just morally wrong”. Even if the children have been reunited with parents, systematically separating them in the first place “has put on our country a moral stain that is hard to believe given who we are and what we stand for as a country.”

The pain brought to millions by the pandemic has made it hard for the nation to deal with others' pain, Cortés, whose group holds the annual national Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, said.

“Our country is beginning to explore what pro-life means. Once a baby is born, what is the responsibility of parents, and when parents can’t provide those responsibilities, what should we as a society do? It raises the question of underfunded school districts, the underfunded safety net, of willfully taking children out of mothers' arms and displacing them,” he said.

“This is beyond pro-life,” he said. “We have done something immoral and must fix it,” he said.

As the issue comes to the forefront, Biden is likely to be hit again with accusations that the Obama administration also intentionally separated children, which is false.

Garcia, who has operated the Annunciation House shelter since 1978, said separations under the Obama administration occurred if a parent who entered had committed a felony or if the children were adults. Photos of unaccompanied migrant children in chain-link pens also emerged during Obama’s tenure, but advocates have said they were held in them for far less time than under the Trump administration — and not as a blanket policy.

Garcia said the El Paso shelters now house few immigrants, but he operates three in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border, for the many asylum-seekers and migrants whom the administration has barred from entering the U.S.

“The question we must ask ourselves is that, is this who we want to be?,” he said. “This is a values election, there’s no way around it. You go vote, you are voting your values.”

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.