Almost 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the US southern border over a six-week period during a crackdown on illegal entries, according to Department of Homeland Security figures obtained on Friday by the Associated Press.
The figures show that 1,995 minors were separated from 1,940 adults between 19 April and 31 May 2018. The separations were not broken down by age, and included separations for illegal entry, immigration violations or possible criminal conduct by the adult.
Under a “zero tolerance” policy announced by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security officials are now referring all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. US protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime, while the parents are.
Sessions announced the effort on 6 April, and homeland security began stepping up referrals in early May, effectively putting the policy into action.
Since then, stories of weeping children torn from the arms of their frightened parents have emerged and the policy has been widely criticised by church groups, politicians on both sides of the aisle and children’s advocates. A fresh battle in Congress is brewing, in part over this issue.
Some immigrant advocates have said women were being separated from their infants – a charge homeland security and justice department officials flatly denied. They also said the children were being well cared for and disputed reports of disorder and mistreatment at the border.
The new figures are for people who tried to enter the US between official border crossings. Asylum seekers who go directly to official crossings are not typically separated from their families.
A small number of reporters were given strictly controlled access earlier this week to one immigration detention centre where some children forcibly separated from their parents, or crossing the border alone, are being held. A quotation from former president Barack Obama is written on a wall in the Casa Padre centre in Brownsville, Texas. In English and Spanish, it states: “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants.”
Many of the 1,500 children in the facility, a former Walmart, might more readily agree with a part of Obama’s 2014 speech that is not on the wall: “Our immigration system is broken – and everybody knows it.”
Conditions in sometimes makeshift and overcrowded detention facilities were also in the spotlight four years ago when the Obama administration struggled to deal with an influx of unaccompanied minors. This time, however, an explicit policy of family separation is contributing to a fresh crisis.
The US attorney general defended the Trump administration’s immigration policies during a speech in Indiana on Thursday, saying it was not about “being mean” to children.
“Our policies are discouraging people from making children endure that treacherous journey,” Sessions said. “Everything the ‘open borders lobby’ is doing is encouraging that and endangering these children.”
But prolonged separation and detention risks traumatizing children who are already fleeing nightmarish situations in their home countries, said Luis Zayas, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas.
The strategy is setting children up for “psychological scars that will take a lifetime to undo”, he said. “Trauma and stress impact the growth patterns of the brain.” That can cause decision-making, social development and intellectual capacity to be impaired. “It really is an inhumane approach to handling the refugee crisis,” Zayas said.
A series of protest rallies organised by a group called Families Belong Together took place across the US on Thursday. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing the government’s immigration policies. “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral,” he said.
Casa Padre is full, holding boys aged 10 to 17. The average stay is 52 days before the boys are placed with a sponsor, NBC News reported.
A quotation from Trump on the wall states: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”
The federal courthouse in McAllen, another Rio Grande valley border city, is being filled with immigrants facing misdemeanour illegal entry charges, many of them parents. A Guatemalan man charged with illegal entry changed his plea to guilty last week because it offered the best hope of a quick reunion with his 11-year-old boy, according to the Washington Post. A Honduran man killed himself last month in a jail cell in Texas after being separated from his wife and three-year-old son.
One attorney told the TV cable news channel CNN that she interviewed a woman from Honduras facing a criminal charge who sobbed as she recalled how officials took away her daughter while she was breastfeeding in a detention centre. The woman said she was handcuffed when she resisted.