Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
It’s hard to imagine a policy crueler than one reported by the New York Times on Saturday. A review of government data found, and federal officials confirmed, that about 700 migrant children had been taken away from their parents at the southern border since October. More than 100 were younger than 4. Department of Homeland Security officials said the agency did not split families apart to deter illegal immigration, but rather to “protect the best interests of minor children crossing our borders.”
This practice is inhumane. The migrant children have already experienced trauma, and being removed from their parents is the last thing they need. And there is no evidence that this policy will do anything to deter migrants fleeing to our southern border.
The women and children arriving there these days are not the typical undocumented immigrants of the past. Those migrants mostly came from Mexico to work. But those inflows have dropped sharply.
Today’s migrants include women and children fleeing horrific violence, gang recruitment and sexual trafficking in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are not trying to sneak into the country illegally. They are presenting themselves to border agents in hopes that they can make a claim for asylum – which they are legally entitled to do.
Under the Trump administration, parents are being kept in detention centers while children are sent to shelters run by nongovernmental organizations. There, workers seek to find a relative or guardian in the US who can care for the children. But these children already have a parent in the US who can care for them – the parents who brought them here. Given the harrowing journeys northward that such migrants endure, wrenching kids from their mothers once they reach the US hardly seems in the “best interests” of the children.
Separating parents and children who are seeking asylum makes it harder for both parties to win permission to stay in the US. To be granted asylum, a foreign national must first convince a government officer that he or she faces a “credible fear of persecution” back home. For parents, this will be harder to do without other family members to corroborate their stories. Now imagine how unaccompanied children, who may not speak English, will fare, navigating our immigration system on their own.
Erecting hurdles to people with valid asylum claims also raises constitutional concerns, as a potential violation of due process rights – rights that all people, not just citizens, are guaranteed in this country.
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Trump administration for allegedly forcibly separating a mother and child seeking asylum for nearly four months. While that case has not yet been resolved, it noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics opposed the government’s practice of separating immigrant children from their parents.
In fact, more than 200 child welfare and juvenile justice organizations signed a letter in January to the Department of Homeland Security urging it to halt plans to separate immigrant children from their parents. It read, in part: “The psychological distress, anxiety, and depression associated with separation of a parent would follow the children well after the immediate period of separation – even after the eventual reunification with a parent or other family.”
Jessica Vaughan, policy director of the Center for Immigration studies, a group that favors restrictions on legal as well as illegal immigration, told the Times that she was concerned about some migrants using children as “human shields” to get out of custody earlier. Yet despite her concerns about fraud, even she said that family separation should only be used as a “last resort.”
Consider that US taxpayers bear the added cost of keeping parents in detention while their children go through the foster care system. That represents an expenditure of public money that could be lower if families were allowed to stay together.
Moreover, breaking up families runs counter to the family unity principle that guides our immigration laws, family laws, and the UN High Commission on Refugees.
Separating vulnerable migrant children from their parents is harsh and unnecessary. There is nothing right about tearing families apart.
An earlier version of this commentary, due to an editing error, gave the incorrect title for Jessica Vaughan. She is the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies,