The Continuing Tragedy of the Separated Children

The Continuing Tragedy of the Separated Children


Originally published by The NY Times

“I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” President Trump said on June 20, when he signed an executive order halting his administration’s depraved practice of separating migrant children from parents seeking asylum at the nation’s southern border. “This will solve that problem.”

It may be that signing such an order was a matter of conscience for Mr. Trump — that he felt morally compelled to address the humanitarian crisis caused by his own “zero tolerance” border policy.

But if so, the matter should still upset him. While family separations have slipped from the spotlight — allowing Mr. Trump to enjoy his morning executive time without enduring televised images of sobbing migrant children — the crisis itself is far from over. Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents. Many of those who have been reunited bear the scars of trauma. Migrant families continue to be rounded up into government detention centers, though now at least they are being held together.

With its zero-tolerance barbarism, the Trump administration managed to do an impressive amount of damage in a very short time. In the six weeks the policy was in effect, more than 2,600 children were taken from their parents, with zero thought or planning for how the families might eventually be reunited.

Less than a week after the executive order, a federal judge, Dana Sabraw, ruling in a class-action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, placed a temporary injunction on family separations and ordered the administration to reunite all those it had already torn apart. A deadline of July 26 was set, with children under the age of 5 put on a fast track.

More than a month past that deadline, progress is mixed. After a bumpy start, and with occasional foot dragging on the government’s part, more than 2,000 children have been reunited with their parents. But the shadow of what these innocents have suffered lingers. Volunteers working with the families report signs of separation trauma and other mental health issues in the children. Some have become withdrawn and silent. Some panic around strangers. Others are terrified to let their parents out of their sight, even to use the bathroom. Medical professionals warn of long-term emotional and psychological damage, including anxiety disorders, depression, trust issues, memory problems and developmental delays.


And these are the “lucky" ones. As of late August, more than 500 children still languished in government custody — scared, confused and unsure of ever seeing their parents again. A few dozen have parents who have been deemed ineligible for reunification because of criminal records or other circumstances. (Disqualifying offenses include drug-possession charges, ID violations and drunken-driving convictions.)

But in a majority of cases — 343, at last count — the parents in question have already been deported. Tracking them down is time-consuming, resource-intensive work for the nonprofit groups spearheading the effort. A steering committee put together by the A.C.L.U. has 50 people working the phones, guided by contact information provided to them, after some delay, by the government. Some numbers are worthless. Trickier still, some parents have melted back into the shadows of the devastated home countries from which they fled in terror. Groups like Justice in Motion have dispatched investigators to search for these people in far-flung corners of Mexico and Central America. At a recent status hearing, Judge Sabraw expressed optimism that things appeared to be on a good trajectory. Even so, the A.C.L.U. expects the process to grind on for another couple of months. All the while, the children wait.

Predictably, the Trump administration has shown less enthusiasm for cleaning up this mess than it did for making it. Earlier this summer, it tried to weasel out of a big chunk of its reunification responsibilities by asserting that it was the A.C.L.U.’s job to locate all of the parents who had been deported by the administration without their children. Once again, Judge Sabraw had to step in and call foul, ordering that the government coordinate with the A.C.L.U.

Complicating matters, the administration has decreed that reunifications must take place in the family’s country of origin. Which means that, once contacted, parents face an excruciating choice: give up their children’s asylum claims and have them returned home, or leave the children in the United States to try to navigate the asylum process on their own.

Amid all this heartbreak, the court challenges continue to proliferate. The A.C.L.U. is pursuing claims on behalf of deported parents who say that, in the nightmarish chaos of having their children snatched from them, they were coerced or duped into signing away their own right to seek asylum. But proving such claims is not easy, and many of these men and women remain traumatized by what they have already been through.

Then there’s the question of where this situation is ultimately headed. The Trump administration has made no move thus far to challenge the core injunction on family separations, but last week, during its weekly progress reports to Judge Sabraw, the Justice Department quietly filed a notice of appeal that preserves the government’s right to relitigate pretty much any aspect of the injunction. In notifying Judge Sabraw, Scott Stewart, a deputy assistant attorney general, assured the court that this was simply a matter of protocol that would not affect the continuing reunification process. But fights could arise, for instance, over whether deported parents should be allowed to return to America for reunification, or whether the government should bear any responsibility for providing trauma care to the children whose lives it has shattered.

No one knows what elements of the injunction, if any, the administration might decide to challenge. But given that this president’s political appeal has been built in no small part on his rabid immigrant bashing, it is best to remain vigilant.

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