Originally published by The New York Times
The State Department warned in a report on Thursday that separating children from their parents can cause lasting psychological damage that leaves them vulnerable to trafficking, a cautionary tale that comes amid an uproar over a Trump administration immigration policy that has temporarily broken up migrant families as they enter the United States.
“Children in institutional care, including government-run facilities, can be easy targets for traffickers,” the department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report concluded.
It added: “Even at their best, residential institutions are unable to meet a child’s need for emotional support that is typically received from family members or consistent caretakers with whom the child can develop an attachment.”
Since May, the Trump administration has separated more than 2,300 migrant children from families crossing the southwestern border. The children are placed in shelters and other temporary housing for up to 20 days while their adult parents or other relatives are held in federal custody during their immigration proceedings.
President Trump has demanded that Congress reverse the policy, but did so himself last week with an executive order. He initially defended the shelters for young migrants as a safeguard against what he called a “massive child smuggling trade.”
“Can you believe this? In this day and age, we’re talking about child smuggling,” Mr. Trump said last week in a speech to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “We’re talking about women smuggling in this day and age. The worst it’s been in history because the internet has led to this.”
The conclusions in the State Department’s trafficking report, one of the world’s most comprehensive, did not specifically address the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on the southwestern border. It also gave no indication that trafficking is peaking, or that an enormous child smuggling ring is responsible for thousands of children attempting to enter the United States from Mexico.
In a briefing for reporters, a top department official referred questions about children’s treatment on the southwestern border to the health officials who have responsibility for their care. The official also sought to draw a distinction between child smuggling and trafficking. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under the terms of the briefing.
John Sifton, an advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, called the report “an indictment of the Trump administration’s own policies, with respect to asylum seekers and others seeking entry into the United States.”
At a ceremony on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and senior adviser, handed out awards to advocates who fight human trafficking. Mr. Pompeo did not mention the controversy over the administration’s border policies, focusing instead on how countries have improved, worsened or stayed the same in their efforts to fight trafficking over the past year.
Among the countries he praised were Estonia, Argentina, Bahrain and Cyprus. Those he criticized included Libya, Myanmar, North Korea and Iran.
“The world should know that we will not stop until human trafficking is a thing of the past,” Mr. Pompeo said.
At a similar event last year, former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson criticized North Korea for forcing 50,000 to 80,000 of its citizens to work overseas — and then using their wages to fund weapons programs.
This year, Mr. Pompeo mentioned North Korea only briefly. The administration has in recent weeks played down Pyongyang’s poor human rights record as it seeks an agreement for North Korea to surrender its nuclear and missile programs.
Generally, human rights have not been viewed as a high priority for the Trump administration. Mr. Tillerson had cautioned while in office over distractions to national security or economic interests.
But human trafficking issues have been a notable exception, which is why the report’s release is part of an elaborate ceremony. Ms. Trump did not offer remarks; her shoe brand came under criticism for its use of Chinese labor and the disappearance last year of three labor activists investigating conditions at the plants manufacturing her products. China ranks among the worst offenders on human rights and trafficking.
Thursday’s report is the latest in a series of State Department efforts that have starkly contrasted with White House messaging. Last week, the department’s consular affairs unit held a question-and-answer session via Facebook on tips for traveling with children, which led to a cascade of derisive questions about the advisability of caging children.
The next day, Mr. Pompeo issued a statement on World Refugee Day “commemorating the strength, courage and resilience of millions of refugees worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution and conflict.” Many of the families caught on the southwestern border are escaping violence and persecution, only to be imprisoned and charged as criminals for illegally entering the United States.