Originally published by The NY Times
It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that ripping children from their beds in the middle of the night, tearing them away from anyone they’ve forged a connection with and thrusting them into more uncertainty could damage them.
Yet the crisis that has led federal immigration authorities to pull nearly 2,000 unaccompanied children (so far) out of shelters around the country in the dead of night and bus them to a “tent city” in the desert town of Tornillo, Tex., is almost entirely of the American government’s own making.
The Trump administration has struggled for solutions as the 100-or-so shelters that normally house unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed the United States border have filled to capacity in recent months. More and more children stuck in immigration limbo for longer periods of time have strained the entire system that manages such kids. (As The Times reported, officials feared the children being taken to Texas — they are among 13,000 being detained nationwide — would run off if they were told ahead of time, or moved them during waking hours.)
How to best handle the cases of unaccompanied minors has perplexed immigration authorities since the Obama administration. But the current crowding is not the result of some dramatic increase in the number of children stealing across the southern border. In fact the influx is no greater now than it has been for the past two years.
Instead, the Trump administration’s own draconian policies are to blame. Around the same time that it began separating immigrant children from their parents as they crossed into the United States, the Department of Homeland Security also established strict new requirements for the relatives and friends who might care for these children while their cases are sorted out. Prospective sponsors are now required to submit fingerprints, and to share their information with federal immigration officers. Because most of them are undocumented immigrants themselves, they have been scared off by these new requirements. And with good cause: So far, dozens of applicants who took the chance of applying to be sponsors have been arrested on immigration charges.
As would-be sponsors shrink away, more of unaccompanied children are left stranded in federal custody.
Images of young children who were torn from their parents this summer triggered a massive public outcry, leading the Trump White House and immigration officials to reverse course on family separations. The long-lasting trauma of extended detention, however, is harder to capture on film, and the public has yet to voice its concern over the tighter sponsorship requirements.
And yet we must. Proponents of the current system insist that the restrictions on sponsors were put into place for the children’s protection. But it’s hard to see how any of the new policies could possibly do more good than harm.
Staff members at shelters cried as the children were taken away, they told The Times, out of dread for what the children would now face. The tent city in Texas is not being held to any of the same rules that group homes or foster care facilities are subject to. And those existing safeguards had already proved inadequate protection against physical abuse, sexual assault and emotional torment. The Department of Health and Human Services has instead offered a thin set of guidelines, but while the tents are air-conditioned, children will not have regular access to schooling or legal services.
Immigrant advocates argue that the true purpose of the new sponsor requirements is to find, arrest and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. Given that dozens of these immigrants have already been arrested, and given that the vast majority of them have committed no other crimes, it’s hard not to agree.
Meanwhile, thousands of children languish. If the administration ended the crackdown and worked in good faith with prospective sponsors, they’d be in the homes of friends and relatives. Of course, these arrangements can also be imperfect, but in most cases, they will be far better than an indefinite stay in desert tents at taxpayers’ expense.
Long-term solutions to America’s immigration challenges will only come with political compromise and a comprehensive reordering of official policies. But further traumatizing children whose lives have already been upended, and detaining them indefinitely, serves only to deepen the shame of this country’s treatment of vulnerable brown-skinned children, many of whom will spend a lifetime recovering from our failures.