Family Separation: How New Policies Affect Immigrant Families

In May 2018, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security implemented a zero-tolerance crackdown on certain individuals attempting to enter the United States. If you paid attention to the Trump Administration’s relentless media campaign against the criminal gang MS-13, you may have expected that a crackdown was coming. You might be a little surprised to hear just who the government’s cracking down on, though. After hearing the President talk about the dangers posed by criminal murderers, drug dealers, and rapists, you might have expected the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize removing these criminals from the United States. Instead, the White House has announced that the Federal government is going to crack down on a very different population: immigrant families with children.

On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would prosecute every person who crossed into the United States across its southern border without inspection, saying among other things that “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across our border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” Prosecuting child smugglers may sound like a laudable goal, except for one very important fact: if a parent brings their own child into the United States without inspection, the Department of Homeland Security automatically considers it to be an act of “smuggling,” considering parents traveling with their children to fall into the same category as professional traffickers.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly doubled down on this policy in an NPR interview a few days later. Kelly stated that family separation “would be a tough deterrent.” When asked about accusation that it is “cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children,” Kelly shrugged it off with the response “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”

Kelly’s comments were shocking to many people. Many people consider the idea that the federal government would begin routinely separating children from their parents, not for the children’s safety but as a means of deterring people from attempting to enter the United States, to be horrifying. People concerned about the welfare of these children were obviously not reassured that John Kelly, who is not only the White House Chief of Staff but also the former Secretary of Homeland Security, didn’t seem to have a plan for how these children would be taken care of; “foster care or whatever” is not, in itself, an adequate plan for implementing a policy which would result in thousands of children being separated from their parents.

Since Sessions and Kelly made their comments earlier this month, the question of what should happen to children separated from their parents has only become more urgent. According to the American Immigration Council, 638 parents traveling with 658 minor children were prosecuted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during a 13 day period between May 6 and May 19. The parents being prosecuted aren’t just people who attempted to cross the border without inspection, either. Individuals who say they have been persecuted in their home countries and have claimed asylum at official entry points have also been detained and separated from their children, even though they have a legal right to ask for asylum in the U.S.  

Kelly’s “foster care of whatever” proposal is especially horrifying in light of other recent news. When CBP separates children from their parents, it sends them to shelters and foster care managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR has also been in the news lately, and not in a good way. Last week, multiple media outlets reported that the ORR had lost track of almost 1500 children it had placed with sponsor families in the United States; this represents nearly 20% of the children whom ORR had placed with sponsors. This has raised many questions: Who are the sponsors that ORR places children with? Were these children really “lost?” And perhaps most importantly, is an agency that is already struggling to keep track of the children it has placed really equipped to handle an influx of thousands of additional children whom CBP has separated from their parents? The answers are complicated, and there is some misinformation making the rounds on the internet, so we’ll be addressing those questions in detail next time.

Until then, if you’d like to learn more about the actual effect the government’s new family separation policy is having on families attempting to immigrate to the United States, we recommend this video in which Chris Hayes interviews Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and Laura St. John, Legal Director of The Florence Project. By explaining the specifics of the new family separation policy, and describing how it has already torn families apart, Gelernt and St. John make clear exactly how inhumane and unjustifiable this new policy is.

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