Thursday 21 June 2018

Families divided at the border: 'The most horrific immigration policy I've ever seen'

As immigration advocates struggle to help more than 1,600 children taken from their parents, Trump refuses to back down

One month before Donald Trump’s administration enacted a policy that allowed the government to take thousands of migrant children from their parents, the president twice told crowds at his rallies that immigrant gang members were not people.

“These are animals,” he said in May. Over the weekend, video and photos emerged of the cage-like detention centers where children, separated from their parents, are housed.

His comment was directed at violent MS-13 gang members, and he deplored the idea that he had been talking about all immigrants. Today, however, as criticism mounts about a draconian set of immigration polices, advocates and attorneys are left wondering just how far Trump and his team are willing to go to stop immigrants from entering the country.

The most extreme example yet is the practice of family separation, which has seen more than 1,600 children taken from parents. Advocates say the practice had quietly been taking place for months before the government adopted it as policy in April.

“It goes totally against what this country was founded on,” Janet Gwilym, an attorney who has been representing children in Washington state, said. “We have a moral responsibility to take them in. It’s international law to take in refugees; that’s who these people are – and instead we are just adding to the trauma that they are going through.”

Gwilym, managing attorney for the Seattle branch of Kids in Need of Defense (Kind), an advocacy group for unaccompanied immigrant children, said children aged 12 to 17 had been comforting toddlers who, like them, had just been taken from their parents.

She said children had said they were told by immigration officials that they would see their parents again in a few minutes but hadn’t seen them for months.

In the face of widespread, bipartisan condemnation, and warnings from medical bodies about the long-term consequences these separations have on children, Trump and his cabinet have stood firm. “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be,” Trump said during remarks at the White House on Monday.

This strident defense comes with November’s midterm elections looming, and two years into Trump’s failed attempt to fulfill a key campaign promise: expanding the border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Congress has not given Trump funds for any new stretches of wall, but in the interim, his administration has created an invisible wall of policies that advocates and attorneys say are meant to stem all types of immigration. The separation of children from their parents is just the most dramatic of many measures the Trump administration has taken to tackle illegal immigration across the United States.

Those affected include refugees, undocumented adults and children, who have also been targeted with a slate of actions such as the cancellation of a refugee program for children traveling from the dangerous Central American northern triangle countries.

There are now daily stories of undocumented people, resident in the United States for decades and with children born in the country, being targeted at their places of work and being forcibly returned home.

When it comes to the undocumented population living in the US, in the administration’s eyes, there appears no longer to be any distinction between violent criminals and people who have been living quietly without legal status for decades.

From October 2016 to September 2017, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) said, it had apprehended nearly 38,000 individuals who had no criminal convictions – a 146% increase from the previous year.

And in a similar style to the family separation policy, the administration abruptly canceled a program that provided temporary deportation relief for undocumented immigrants who had been raised in the US (known as Dreamers): Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca).

After the revoking of Daca and termination of a special deportation relief measure called Temporary Protected Status for six countries, 1,038,600 people are no longer protected from deportation, according to government figures.

The policy crackdown has advanced on many fronts, but the most extraordinary turn was in April, when the Trump administration made family separation possible, by saying there would be “zero tolerance” for people who cross the border illegally.

At the border, those parents are deemed criminals and separated from their children, who cannot be held in adult detention facilities.

The administration’s position, which includes blaming Democratic opponents, and defending family separation on biblical grounds, ignores warnings from the country’s top child welfare and health organizations, including the American Association of Pediatrics.

Central American asylum seekers wait as US Border Patrol agents take them into custody this month near McAllen, Texas. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
Parents were also suffering from the separation, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Gelernt filed a class-action lawsuit in March against the Trump administration’s family separation practice after meeting with a Congolese woman who hadn’t seen her seven-year-old daughter for four months. She and her child were reunited after Gelernt filed a lawsuit on their behalf.

“This is as shocking an immigration policy as we’ve seen from this Trump administration, but frankly, I’ve been doing this work for approaching three decades, and this is the most horrific immigration policy I have ever seen,” Gelernt said.

Gelernt said the detained parents he had been speaking with were afraid to ask immigration agents too much about their children for fear their children would face retaliation.

Gelernt said one family told him that since they were reunited, their four-year-old has repeatedly asked if the government is going to take him away again.

The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks to reunite families who have been separated and stop families from being separated in the future.

As the case works through the court, the impacts of family separation have been compounded by the lack of infrastructure built to support the policy. The administration has left behind a system so chaotic that children’s’ advocates are making desperate gambits to locate parents.

“What we’re finding is that there is no mechanism, no policy, for communicating or even finding the parents once the child has been separated,” said Megan McKenna, Kind’s senior director of communications and community engagement.

McKenna said when parents and children were separated, they each got individual case numbers that their mother, father, daughter or son did not have access to.

On the chance that these numbers would be sequential, Kind advocates started putting educated guesses into the case tracking system in the hopes it would lead them to parents they were seeking.

“You just play around: maybe the child’s number ends in five, so the adult’s number could end in six,” McKenna said. “So you put that in the system and see if you get a hit. Or it could be the other way around.”

That tactic has worked in some instances, but not often enough to be a solution.

She said other problems included that children might not know why their family was fleeing in the first place, which could affect the outcome of their immigration case.

Another challenge is that advocates don’t know what separated parents want for their children. For instance, if a parent is deported, they might want their child returned with them. Or there may be so much danger in their home country, they would prefer the child stay with immigration authorities in the US. And even if the parent’s preferences were known, there is no clear procedure for reuniting parents, especially if a parent has already been deported.

McKenna said Kind was advocating on behalf of a two-year-old who was separated from her father in March. The father was deported within a month, but as of 12 June, the girl was still in the custody of the US government.

“The consequences in terms of human suffering can’t be overestimated,” McKenna said. “Toddlers are being taken from their parents.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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