President Donald Trump signed an executive order last June ostensibly ending zero tolerance and family separations at the border and promising to reunite almost 3,000 children with their parents. Yet relying largely on a technical exception, at least 700 more families have been separated since then, and at least five children have died.
In many cases, the separations since then have continued under the guise of fitting into a narrow exception to the order — that the parent poses a danger to the child, or has a serious criminal record or gang affiliation. (The exception can also be invoked if the parent is sick, or when an aunt, uncle or sibling is accompanying the child.)
“The government is trying to drive a truck through what was supposed to be a very narrow exception,” notes Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union, who believes that the number of separated families will be more than 1,000 by the end of this summer.
Advocates, however, argue that many children are being separated from their parents for minor crimes or questionable, unverified accusations of gang affiliation, neither of which would be allowed to occur to American parents under U.S. law. And so despite the end of the zero tolerance policy, children have continued to be separated from parents only charged with the so-called crime of entering the country illegally, according to the government’s own data released to the Houston Chronicle.
Legally speaking, the zero tolerance and family separation policies are distinct from each other. Family separation refers to the policy of automatically breaking up family units because children cannot be detained in adult detention centers, while “zero tolerance” is an approach to border crossings in which all undocumented immigrants who enter our country through the border with Mexico are automatically referred for criminal prosecution and sent to pretrial jail. Child separation, though, is a direct result of zero tolerance, and cannot be ended without truly ending zero tolerance.
The children separated from their parents — both in the last year and those yet to be reunited with their parents from before the “end” of family separation — have been placed in unspeakable environments, characterized by a complete loss of human dignity. They reportedly lack basic hygiene products like toothbrushes and soap in many cases, and are often covered in lice. Lights are sometimes left on all night (a known form of torture) and the temperature is regularly kept so cold that individuals refer to these facilities as “hieleras,” meaning “ice boxes.” According to a report written by lawyers who visited one facility, “A 2-year-old boy wants to be held all the time,” and so a few girls as young as 10 are trying to take care of him. The report also stated that the child had wet his pants, but had no diapers and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt. The Clint facility, where some children are held, was built for 106 people, but was holding seven times as many children.
And there is still no system in place to reunite parents with their children.
If any parent treated their child the way these children are being treated under the guise of “protection,” they would likely have their child removed from them and face serious jail time. Nevertheless, an attorney for the Trump administration recently tried to argue that the way the government is treating these children was adequate to meet the legal requirement for “safe and sanitary” conditions.
The administration claims that separation acts as a form of deterrence, thus reducing illegal border crossings. Yet there is little evidence this policy is having the desired effect: Border arrests, widely seen as a proxy for overall crossings, are at a recent high despite the president’s draconian policies.
Part of the reason is that most of the families caught up in this administration’s dragnet are fleeing violence or catastrophic natural disasters in their home countries. While en route to America, immigrants faced even more dangers in the form of robbery, being sold into sex or labor trafficking, and even death. They take these risks because of what this country — as the “shining city on the hill” — offers. If they are willing to face these horrors, it seems unlikely that family separation, if they’ve heard of it in advance, serves as a meaningful deterrent.
Moreover, even assuming family separation is having some deterrent effect, as a nation, we have long held that children deserve to be protected. In fact, our entire legal system recognizes this moral truth: We ensure that children are not exploited in the workforce through child labor laws; we protect children from predators with a network of sex crime legislation; and we have set different levels of criminal culpability for children based on their youth. Yet when it comes to immigration, these considerations fall apart.
Because of the public outcry over the continued mistreatment, some of the separated children were recently moved to a tent facility. However, 100 were moved back to the original facility amid chaos and confusion — reportedly because this original facility (where children were observed in such deplorable conditions) is better equipped to take care of them than the tents. This mistreatment cannot continue.
As Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Our society’s soul is in grave danger. We are housing thousands of young people — who have committed no crime except traveling with their parents — in unconscionable conditions. What was intolerable a year ago has continued. This time around, we must ensure that we are the ones with zero tolerance — toward any further separations, any more suffering and yet any other death.