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Trump Policy of Tearing Children Away from Parents Was Hatched a Year Ago

The outrageous Trump administration policy of taking refugee children away from their parents violates every precept of justice. It is all over the news this week, but it is part of a push dating back more than a year to deny child refugees their day in court. 

The separation of families is not a new response to some sort of emerging crisis situation. When he was Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly announced in March of 2017, just two months into the Trump administration, that he was considering busting up families to discourage persecuted parents with children from seeking refuge in the United States. Kelly tried to couch the proposed policy in the language of concern for children, but it is clear that this was on the Trump agenda from the start.

While the cruel idea of attacking families seemed to die when there was a sharply negative reaction in Congress and the press, Jonathan Blitzer writes in the New Yorker that it was revived last August by Gene Hamilton, an ally of White House advisor Steve Miller. He met with a group of Homeland Security staff. Someone who had been at the meeting told Blitzer that, “Hamilton told us that over the next few days we’d need to generate paperwork laying out everything we could do to deter immigrants from coming to the U.S. illegally,” including separating children from parents. “All the memos sucked,” the source said. “The outcome was predetermined. We didn’t have time to work out any of the policy differences. Some of the ideas didn’t make sense. Some were illegal, and some, like separating kids, were just immoral.”

Immorality and illegality did not stop the idea from insinuating itself in Team Trump. Some kids began to be split off from their parents. In many cases, the Department of Homeland Security could not even tell parents where their children were being jailed.  The separated children in this early stage of the new policy included more than one hundred under the age of four.

For more than half-a-year, the Trump administration denied that a policy of dividing families was in effect, then two months ago Attorney General Sessions announced that what had previously been denied was now policy. Homeland Security was breaking up families to “discourage” those endangered by gang violence from coming to the United States to seek shelter. Before this announcement, roughly 600 kids were taken from their parents over the previous six months. From May 6 to May 19, 2018 alone, 658 children were separated.

Sessions compounded the damage by promising to prosecute parents found entering with their children as “alien smugglers.” In my 35 years as an immigration lawyer, this has never been done.  In the past, smugglers have been those who have transported people for personal gain, not parents carrying small children across the border. Criminal prosecutions can result in a felony conviction and imprisonment for up to a year.

Like most things Trump does, this policy has not been well thought out. Homeland Security is already using 10,000 more beds than it is authorized for. Since a “Zero Tolerance” policy means everyone gets detained, existing facilities quickly filled up and kids are now being housed in places like an abandoned Walmart store whose windows have been painted over so that the kids can’t see the sky. 

The horrors of the last week, babies being torn from nursing mothers, a father killing himself when he was parted from his child, are waking Americans up to the injustice. 

Pat Young is an attorney at CARECEN on Long Island

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