On Wednesday, more than one hundred immigrant children and their parents were left to ask themselves what they could do next—if anything—after being separated by the Trump administration.
Politicians and activists across the United States are pushing the administration to reunite these families as quickly as possible. On the last day of the executive order that temporarily banned the separation of children from their parents, New York mayor Bill de Blasio went to a detention center and signed an order to hold the detained families in New York rather than in a federal facility. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (in whose state the government’s border with Mexico is) explained that parents must be reunited with their children as soon as possible because “children come from broken homes” and need stability to grow. Other politicians on both sides of the aisle have asked how the government arrived at the idea of separating children from their parents, and whether the Trump administration deliberately set out to mislead the public about the policy’s intent.
The controversy has captured the nation’s attention because children have been separated from their parents and detained in what has become a sprawling shadow detention system. These detention centers in Arizona, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, and New York hold thousands of men, women, and children who have crossed the border. Once people make the dangerous journey into the U.S., they are detained in these facilities for periods as short as one night or as long as ten months.
In detention, children are subject to long, arbitrary detention periods, wherein they are processed, assessed, and detained under irregular procedures that violate important civil rights protections. Accompanied by a parent or guardian, children wait on the frontlines of a cruel deportation process that has been known to subject mothers and fathers to months and even years in detention. And, for many children and parents who have crossed into the U.S. in small and large numbers, these detention procedures create a trauma unlike anything they have experienced before.
Meanwhile, the very institutions established to protect and care for these children are shockingly broken and unprepared for the task at hand. The structures that ostensibly ensure families and children are protected are riddled with bureaucratic incompetence and failures to protect basic rights.
“The administration seems to believe it is deputizing ICE to police itself, and it is not,” said Aldy Saca of American Families United in a statement. “These facilities are not detention facilities, they are temporary holding facilities for children who are essentially in limbo.”
And yet, recent reports indicate that children are placed in conditions that violate most civil rights laws and fail to comply with most other minimum legal standards, including in family guardianship proceedings. A child who is subject to arbitrary detention may not even be able to qualify for a federal foster care placement because of flawed care of his/her asylum claim, which is the basis on which the government may have made their temporary detention proceedings.
In time, the official reintegration processes may well be able to undo the damage to children, their families, and their communities. But that’s not a story we can write tomorrow or in the immediate future. What must be done now is to step in, treat children’s rights with the same urgency and attention that they deserve, and engage politicians to use all leverage at their disposal, both political and legal, to end the illegal immigrant raids, detention, and family separation.
In the meantime, Congress can consider the recent statements made by Trump administration officials about the separation of families, or the testimony of migrant and immigrant rights advocates, both from current and former government employees, that tell the story of how separated families aren’t only an emergency emergency but also a humanitarian humanitarian disaster of the first order.
Last week, Jenny Walls, a former teacher and a scholar of immigration law, told the media that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are “using children to fulfill their own hearts.”