Family separations: A chapter of American history that grows darker and darker

Family separations: A chapter of American history that grows darker and darker

Originally published by LA Times

A case involving one little girl housed here in Chicago, unjustly separated from her mother as they sought asylum, soon grew to involve thousands of other migrant children separated from their families. And that case has now grown again, with a federal judge signaling that our government may have to track down as many as “thousands” of other children it effectively kidnapped in a chapter of American history that keeps growing darker.

It’s possible you missed this development. Keeping a spotlight on the issue of family separations at the southern border is difficult when news cycles are overrun with presidential and celebrity scandals.

But the ruling, issued late Friday by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in California, was significant. It dramatically expanded the American Civil Liberties Union’s class-action lawsuit that began with a Congolese mother named Ms. L. and her daughter, a little girl whisked away to Chicago and kept apart from her mother for months, and reinforced the belief that the full scope of the Trump administration’s family separations is not yet known.

Last June, Sabraw ordered the Trump administration to reunite the roughly 2,600 children who were separated from their families at the border and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Most of those children have now been reunited.

In January, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inspector general revealed a second cohort of “thousands of separated children” who entered the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and then were released either to relatives or non-relatives in the United States. The initial ruling in the Ms. L. case had only applied to children who were in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody, so the government made no attempt to locate these other children, much less consult the separated parents to see if they approved of their children’s current guardianship.

The government claimed it would be too difficult to locate this second group of children, and even tried to argue that bringing them back into government custody so they could be reunited with their parents would be too traumatic for the children. (A real laugher when you consider how little the government cared about each child’s well being when it first swiped them from their parents.)

Sabraw’s ruling expands the class to include these previously unknown children, allowing in families who were separated as early as July 1, 2017, which was before the Trump administration formally announced its zero-tolerance policy.

In his ruling, Sabraw wrote: “This argument overlooks the profound importance of the reunification effort, which entailed a search for parents who had been separated from their minor children under questionable circumstances; it ensured every reasonable effort was employed to avoid the very real possibility of a permanently orphaned child due to the actions of one or more government officials.”

Remember, many of these families — like Ms. L. and her daughter — arrived at ports of entry and legally sought asylum, following our country’s long-established rules. But Trump administration officials made clear that they hoped having families separated due to the zero-tolerance policy would deter future asylum seekers and illegal border crossers.

Aside from being inhumane, it did nothing to lower the number of apprehensions at the border. And contrary to a popular right-wing talking point, former President Barack Obama did not have a similar policy. (You can learn more about that here.)

Sabraw didn’t rule on whether he will order the government to find and reunite this new group of families. There will be additional arguments on how to proceed, but one of the problems with this new class, as with the initial one, is that the government did an inexcusably bad job of tracking where the children and their parents wound up.

As I wrote in a column last month, America is a kidnapper. And now a federal judge has confirmed that the number of children our government effectively kidnapped, as a cruel and wildly ineffective means of deterrence, is far larger than we initially knew.

Developments like this get lost in the waves of insane news generated by this reality show of an administration. But this issue should remain in the forefront of people’s minds.

We can disagree over what should be done to fix our immigration system or to secure our border with Mexico. We can disagree over myriad issues this country is facing. But none of our disagreements should overshadow this simple fact: What our government did to these children is unconscionable, and the repercussions of these separations will be felt for lifetimes.

In his ruling, Sabraw wrote: “The hallmark of a civilized society is measured by how it treats its people and those within its borders.”

We haven’t been very civilized over the past couple years. This country has ruined lives — children’s lives — to satisfy the ginned-up fears of a border invasion that doesn’t exist.

History will remember what happened here. And it will remember whether we took the necessary steps to right these wrongs.

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