Although the family separation crisis at the nation’s southern border has slipped off the front pages, the crisis remains: There are still more than 2,000 children still separated from their parents.
We think. Why don’t we know the exact number? Because the US government continues to refuse to release any sorts of figures on how many children have been reunited with their parents.
In fact, after using the 2,000 figure for days, the Department of Health and Human Services now estimates it could be closer to 3,000.
How is President Donald Trump dealing with that crisis? By tweeting, of course.
Trump unleashed a trio of tweets Thursday morning – all dealing with immigration.
“Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now,” he tweeted. “Law Enforcement at the Border is doing a great job, but the laws they are forced to work with are insane. When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave without our Country being forced to endure a long and costly trial. Tell the people ‘OUT,’ and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn. Hiring thousands of ‘judges’ does not work and is not acceptable - only Country in the World that does this!”
For good measure, Trump added: “Congress - FIX OUR INSANE IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW!”
What you may have noticed in Trump’s tweets is that there is a) no mention of the children already separated from their parents due to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy and b) no clear directive to Congress about any sort of comprehensive immigration reform proposal aside from “FIX OUR INSANE IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW,” which is, um, sort of non-specific.
What’s remarkable about the lack of action – or even a plan of action – is that time is running out. Here are a few of the upcoming deadlines as set by a federal judge in California last week:
- By Friday, the Trump administration is supposed to have guaranteed that every child separated from a parent as a result of the “zero-tolerance” policy at the border is in touch with their parents
- By July 10, all children 5 and under have to be reunited with their parents (there are estimated to be around 100 of those kids)
- By July 26, all children separated from their parents at the border have to be reunited
July 26 is three weeks from today. While it’s possible that the Trump administration is, behind the scenes and without releasing any information on what they are doing, rapidly reuniting families, it’s much more likely that isn’t happening – or at least at nothing close to the rate that would allow the government to reunite all kids and parents by the end of the month. On Thursday afternoon, HHS said it plans to meet the deadlines set by the California judge, although that might mean sending separated kids into detention facilities with their parents.
It’s easy – amid the numbers game and the various timelines – to lose sight of something very, very important here: These are little kids we are talking about. Some younger than 5. As the father of two kids under age 10, I can’t even imagine the terror these kids – and their parents – must be feeling. One time when my older son was 4, I couldn’t find him in an outdoor mall for 10 minutes. I was absolutely panicked. So was he. That was 10 minutes. We are talking about days and week in some cases here.
This piece in the Los Angeles Times does a good job of capturing just how traumatic these separations have been. These lines in particular struck me:
“The words appear on a scrap of paper, scrawled in pencil by an immigrant mother held at a detention center: ‘We beg you to help us, return our children. Our children are very desperate. My son asks me to get him out and I’m powerless here.’
“In another letter, childish print on notebook paper, a mother spoke of her son: ‘It’s been a month since they snatched him away and there are moments when I can’t go on…. If they are going to deport me, let them do it — but with my child. Without him, I am not going to leave here.’
“At least 2,053 children were separated from their parents due to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Officials have said they reunited 538 of those children, but didn’t intend to reunite them with parents who were detained. In more than a dozen letters collected by volunteers, detained mothers separated from their children shared their despair, pleaded to be released and sent messages of love to their children.”
On Thursday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar would not give a specific number of separated children in HHS custody during a phone call with reporters. He said under 3,000 children currently in custody are being looked at as possibly separated minors and that approximately 100 children under the age of five in HHS custody may have been separated from their families.
What’s even more striking is that Trump’s solution to stop the family separations at the border – an executive order that allows children to be detained with their parents – is a stop-gap solution that is about to expire. Why? Because Trump’s executive order did not override a Supreme Court decision from the early 1990s that says a child cannot be held in a detention facility for more than 20 days. Which means that on or around July 10 – 20 days from Trump’s signing of the EO on June 20 – border enforcement officials will be required to start separating families currently being held in detention centers.
In short: The family separation crisis is likely to get worse – and soon.
What of Trump’s call for Congress to act? Prior to leaving last week for a July 4 recess, two comprehensive immigration bills – one which was pushed by Trump and Republican leaders – failed miserably. Like, not even close to passage. And Congress won’t return to Washington until next Monday – July 9 – giving them 24 hours before major deadlines on family reunification and family separation kick in.
Congress has been trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform in one form or another since 2005. It hasn’t happened yet. Given that, it seems unlikely that a series of scolding tweets from the President will suddenly light the necessary fire under Congress to solve these problems.
Yes, we are witnessing a policy failure here – from the White House down through Congress. But, more than that, we are watching a humanitarian crisis play out – among the youngest of us. And, no matter how you feel about our border policies, that can’t – and shouldn’t – sit right with you.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with new numbers from HHS.
CNN’s Sonia Moghe contributed to this report.