Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-seller “Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and CEO of Zemcar. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Do you know where the children are?
For the United States, the answer to that question is still a remarkable “no.” The Trump administration is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that it created. And it has exacerbated the tragedy by failing to implement, with urgency, well understood crisis management skills to solve the problem.
There is no reason that the reunification of children who were separated by US authorities from their parents should be so chaotic.
Just a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar confidently notified the public that the administration would satisfy a court’s order to reunite all children younger than 5 by a July 10 deadline, the government reversed course and asked the court for an extension. Sarah Fabian, an attorney for the Justice Department, admitted that the administration still does not know where the parents of nearly 20% of the children are because those parents were released from ICE custody.
In other words, the administration would not be able to satisfy the judicial order. These numbers do not include reunification of “older” (older than 5) children, which is set for July 26. The lack of any paperwork or accounting means the government is resorting to DNA testing to be able to match these families. And the numbers are all over the place: The government still does not have an exact number of parents or children who remain separated. It has estimated that number to be about 3,000.
There are no excuses. Even assuming that the removal policy was sound public policy – and it was not – it simply defies logic that our own government would separate children from their families with no serious effort at an accounting and tracking system to be able to reunite them at some stage.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Trump administration, through Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, originally denied even doing it, then balked at the notion that they could stop it. Donald Trump eventually caved to public pressure with an executive order that was so weak it took a court to step in to demand reunification. Was the thought that if the policy wasn’t acknowledged these kids would simply – what, exactly? Go away?
Even worse, the reunification process has lacked the urgency and organization that is required of any crisis. Family reunification is a well understood consequence of any disaster; governments spend considerable effort in training and planning procedures (such as organizing non-governmental agencies, churches and schools to assist, creating databases, and picture galleries) in focusing on how to bring children and families back together should they be separated by an event.
Family unification is always a priority. After all, disasters happen all the time, and while this one was planned and executed by the government, our efforts would have been better served by implementing disaster management lessons to try to bring them together.
What would that take? Well, let’s start with the obvious. This is the United States. Unlike Haiti after an earthquake, or Thailand after a tsunami, the basic infrastructure here works: phones, electricity, cameras and computers. The pool of children separated is relatively small compared to many other disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake or Thailand’s tsunami; the number of facilities holding these children should be known with some certitude.
What’s lacking then, is a focus by the very White House that got us to this moment.
As reported, the reunification has been stymied by the number of agencies and state and local stakeholders involved in the effort. HHS has borne the brunt of the reunification demands since the children are in their custody. But, multiple players also have strong equities and insights.
DHS, whose agencies forcibly removed these children, has been accused of destroying some of the data that links parents to their children, though DHS has denied this claim. There is also the Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration courts; the Department of Defense, which has been preparing to hold families; the State Department, which is getting queries from nations where the children came from; state and local governments where the facilities reside; and private sector contractors who own and manage where these kids are held.
What we are missing here is leadership. A point person, an incident commander, a czar, someone in the White House who can manage these various entities and claims and force movement and solution. The White House has remained relatively quiet on this front; the President’s homeland security adviser has been notably absent when it comes down to the reunification effort.
And so the consequence, outside the mere fact that these children are waiting in limbo, has been a second kind of disaster. It means that what should have been a process to reunite these kids has been too slow; data and numbers have been all over the place, and therefore unreliable; and courts have had to get involved to force the government to do what it could have done on its own.
It is clear now that the Trump administration never processed the consequences of its policy and then never processed the urgency of finding a solution. The reason? Others can fill in the blanks: cruelty as a public policy, racism, ignorance, chaos as a means of management, or simply bad execution.
Tuesday, the Trump administration is supposed to reunite children younger than 5 with their parents. It will miss that deadline for some of these kids. That we are at this stage defies any appropriate adjectives. Try harder.
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