Taking Aim at Immigrant and Refugee Children and Families: Is This Who We Are as a Nation?

January 8, 2018

As we settle back into our daily routines after holidays with family and other loved ones and embark upon a new year, the Trump Administration is poised to approve a new policy taking aim at immigrant and refugee children and their families. First considered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in early 2017, the policy would direct immigration officers to separate these children from their mothers and fathers upon arriving at our nation’s southern border. Conceived to deter future migration to the United States, the plan denotes an unthinkably cruel and misguided way to welcome the new year and the most vulnerable among us.

Most families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border have fled extreme violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These countries are experiencing severe violence, including significant sexual and gender-based violence, by gangs and criminal organizations that frequently control territory and access to basic services, including schools. Without adequate protection from their own governments, many families are forced to flee for their lives.

Under existing policy, families are generally detained or released together following their apprehension by U.S. officials. The proposed policy would intentionally tear families apart by instructing that parents and children be separated and sent to different facilities.

The Administration reasons that the trauma wrought by these separations will prevent others from risking the same, thereby reducing migration. Yet deterrence policies, although undeniably callous, do little to prevent families confronting life or death circumstances from seeking safety. If faced with a child’s likely death in one’s home country or separation abroad, who wouldn’t choose to leave if they could? The effects are nevertheless devastating.

Even without a formal policy, family separations at the border have been rising in recent months. Families who have survived unspeakable trauma in their countries of origin are suffering once more as they are divided and lost to each other in a system in which their future reunification is uncertain. Children with loving parents at their side are unnecessarily rendered “unaccompanied” and placed in institutional care, where they must remain throughout their immigration proceedings unless an alternate sponsor can be identified to care for them. The indefinite detention of children poses significant and lasting emotional and psychological consequences, and it undermines the very integrity and fairness of our immigration system.

At Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), we provide pro bono legal representation to children who come to the U.S. alone. Most of these children have valid claims for asylum or other relief, often based on circumstances shared with their parents. Children, particularly those of tender age, are frequently unable to describe in detail the experiences giving rise to their claims for protection, and must rely on information and documentation from their parents to substantiate their cases. The detention of parents and children in separate facilities, often at great distance, frustrates access to this critical information. As a result, immigration cases may be slowed or stalled, or worse, children may be ordered deported back to their home countries, despite grave risk of harm or death.

Like the stories of families arriving at our borders, immigration policy is difficult and complex. The search for common ground often meets with a long and winding road. But there is much on which we can agree. Our lives and laws reflect our shared belief in the value of families and the protection of children. Just as last year, when the Administration halted the implementation of its plan to separate families in response to a forceful public outcry, we need an equally thunderous outpouring again now. Let us resolve to raise our voices in support of policies that protect, not punish, families and children.