Separating mothers and kids is wrong on every level

Kelly: Separating families under consideration
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Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Trump administration mulling plan that would separate mothers from children
  • This kind of deterrence would be cruel, costly and do nothing to stop those fleeing violence

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney, a member of the USA Today board of contributors and writes frequently for CNN Opinion. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)The most anti-immigrant administration in modern history appears poised to outdo itself. On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly confirmed to CNN that his agency is considering separating children from their parents at the US border.

"We have tremendous experience of dealing with unaccompanied minors," Kelly told Wolf Blitzer. "We turn them over to (Health and Human Services) and they do a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States."
Kelly explained that this would be part of a strategy to deter Central American migrants from making the trek north to seek asylum.
What's wrong with this idea? Just about everything. You do not have to be a lawyer or a child welfare expert to grasp that forcibly removing children from their parents is cruel and inhumane. If such a practice were implemented -- and it is not official policy; not yet, at least -- it would face major legal hurdles, all while expanding our government bureaucracy and failing to solve the original problem.
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Kelly's remarks echo a report from Reuters that DHS is weighing such a plan -- a chilling prospect that could inflict immeasurable psychological trauma on young children who have just completed a perilous journey to the US from their home countries.
To be clear, the parents and children who would be affected are not the people we typically think of as undocumented immigrants. Unlike most undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who come to the US to work, these people are literally fleeing for their lives. They are arriving at the US border from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, three of the most dangerous countries on earth. Migrants from these countries arrive at the US border to make their case for asylum, which they are entitled by law to do.
Successfully making that case is complicated for anyone -- a long process that entails meeting with lawyers and case workers, appearing before a judge, and navigating the byzantine U.S. immigration court system. It can be difficult for adults to pass the tests and meet the screening requirements. Under the proposed DHS policy, it would become virtually impossible for mothers and children who are unable to corroborate their stories of "credible fear of persecution" to meet the standards for asylum.
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The children in this situation already face language barriers and a lack of access to legal representation. If they are separated from their parents, it's easy to imagine that some would become withdrawn and unresponsive to anyone they perceived as a government representative. The all-too-possible result is that they might be deported, with or without their mothers, back to the harrowing conditions they fled.
Kelly told CNN that he was considering this new policy "in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network." But where is the empirical evidence that shows that a deterrence strategy aimed at Central American migrants works?
When people are in a life-or-death situation -- with their children -- no risk is too great. Indeed, this new proposal could lead to an increase in trafficking, as desperate families turn to human smugglers to help them reach safety.
To be sure, the influx of Central Americans migrants was a problem the Obama administration wrestled with too; it settled on a media campaign in Central America to discourage migrants from beginning their journey and increased deportations of recent arrivals and their children. Neither of these efforts worked. According to the Reuters report, between October 1, 2016 and January 31, 2017, about 54,000 children and their guardians were apprehended at the border, more than double the number caught in the same time period a year earlier.
A smarter approach by the Trump administration would be to reform our immigration court system: make more attorneys available to children seeking asylum and increase the number of immigration judges, which would help ease the backlog of people in detention. The government could also expand the CAM (Central American Minors) program, which allows potential refugees from that region to apply for refugee status in their home countries.
It seems unlikely that this administration is interested in pursuing such thoughtful moves, but it would do well to look to them for a real, if not perfect, solution.
If the Trump administration attempts to implement this new policy instead, it is setting itself up for myriad legal challenges. Family unity is a guiding principle of existing US family and immigration law, and even of the UN High Commission of Refugees. Not allowing parents and children to pursue their asylum claims together would also arguably violate their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment.
Practically speaking, anyone who is against big government should recognize that sending thousands of foreign-born children into our foster care system, while holding their mothers in long-term detention, will likely amount to increased costs to be paid for by taxpayers.
The Obama administration's policy of releasing mothers and children who are not public safety threats to the care of a relative or sponsor is cheaper than funneling more people into government care. And despite what Kelly says, the government does not always do a "very, very good" job of handling immigrant children and families.
In 2015, a federal judge ordered that hundreds of women and children in detention be released because of the "deplorable" conditions in which they were being held. In 2014, workers at a family detention center in Texas faced allegations of sexual abuse and assault. The private company running the detention center, Geo Group, denied the allegations.
DHS may well proceed with its plan to separate children from their mothers at one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. If so, it will be further evidence of this administration's complete lack of empathy and compassion towards immigrants.