Wednesday 12 December 2018

System is far better at splitting families up than putting them back together

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says the policy aims to protect children. Photo: AP
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says the policy aims to protect children. Photo: AP

Nick Miroff

On a simple flier printed in Spanish and English, the Trump administration now provides migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with a step-by-step guide explaining what to do after they have been separated from their children.

What it does not tell them is whether they will get their children back.

In the deepening crisis over the Trump administration's decision to separate migrant families at the border, immigration attorneys and child advocates say that one of its most pernicious features is a haphazard system for reuniting families after they are divided.

As the administration faces growing outrage over its "zero tolerance" crackdown, Trump officials say they are committed to helping parents locate their children and avoid being deported without them. But the measures have proven far more efficient at splitting up families than putting them back together again.

Homeland Security officials say they separated 2,342 children from their parents along the border between May 5 and June 9, reclassifying them as "Uunaccompanied alien children" and placing them in foster care with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Trump officials could not say how many of those children have been reunited with their mothers and fathers.

"I don't know how many separated kids have been placed or reunited with parents," Steven Wagner, a Trump appointee at HHS, told reporters. "This policy is relatively new, and we're still working through experience of reunifying with their kids after adjudication."

Under the Trump administration's separation system, parents who are prosecuted and held in immigration detention to await deportation cannot regain custody of their children. Those who are released may spend weeks or even months trying to get them back. The government's flier offers no assurances that children will be returned.

"There is complete chaos," said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer whose organisation is suing to force the government to promptly return children to parents.

The ACLU filed the suit in February on behalf of a Congolese woman whose seven-year-old daughter was taken from her after they entered the United States seeking asylum.

The daughter was placed in foster care 1,600km away, and the two were apart for four months.

A federal judge in San Diego this month allowed the suit to go forward, writing that the separation "arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child" and appears to violate a "constitutional right to family integrity".

Legal experts anticipate a ruling on the ACLU's request for a nationwide injunction in the coming weeks.

Trump administration officials say the allegations of bureaucratic disorder are overblown and that they have a legal obligation to thoroughly screen adults who apply to gain custody of children in government care, particularly to ensure that alleged family relationships are real and that minors will not become trafficking victims.

Because US courts have ruled that children cannot generally be held in detention, letting their parents out would be tantamount to treating children as "get-out-of-jail-free cards," according to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who argues that such treatment would only tempt more lawbreaking.

On Monday, Nielsen gave a fierce defence of the prosecution policy, insisting that the government's aim is to protect children.

However, immigration advocates have documented instances in recent months of parents deported to Central America while their children are left behind in US foster care.

© The Washington Post

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News