As stories of terrified children being ripped from their parents’ arms are making headlines, many Americans are wondering: What is going on? And how is this happening in 2018?
President Donald Trump has attempted to shift the blame for his policy on Democrats. At least one member of Congress, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has been turned away from a migrant detention center, and declared that the current administration’s policies toward migrant families show “zero humanity.”
Now, as more than 700 children have reportedly been separated from their parents, read on to learn more about an issue Merkley says damages “the soul of America.”
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Last December, the Trump administration began considering a plan to separate parents from their children when families enter the country illegally, officials briefed on the plans told The New York Times. According to the Times, this was meant to discourage border crossings.
At the time, immigrant groups “denounced it as draconian and inhumane,” the Times reported.
The policy up to that point was to allow families to remain together in “special family detention centers or released with a court date” as they awaited word on their bid for asylum or on deportation hearings, the outlet also reported.
WHAT CHANGED UNDER TRUMP?
Earlier this year, the Trump administration forced the breakup of undocumented parents from their children caught crossing the border, even if they are seeking asylum. This is reportedly due to a “zero tolerance” policy implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He announced a goal to criminally prosecute 100 percent of people crossing the border illegally, including families with children.
“If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said last month. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
Anyone charged with illegal entry — which is a misdemeanor on the first infraction — are now jailed and separated from their children, according to NBC News. Previously, most parents had been allowed to remain with their children in family shelters while awaiting asylum cases or deportation proceedings, the network reported.
Children removed from their families are now sent to separate facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
On Sunday night, Merkley went to a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that has become a detention center for children separated from their parents.
He asked to see what was inside, but officials at the site called police, and Merkley was asked to leave. “The administration calls this ‘zero tolerance.’ … It is really a ‘zero humanity’ policy,” Merkley told the Washington Post. “It does damage to the children, to the parents and to the soul of America.”
HOW MANY CHILDREN HAVE BEEN TAKEN FROM THEIR PARENTS?
In a review of data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, The New York Times reported that more than 700 children were taken from adults claiming to be their parents between October and April, with “more than 100 children under the age of 4.”
NBC News reported, Tuesday, that the HHS Administration for Children and Families has 11,200 migrant children in its care, a figure that appears to include children who arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult.
WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?
Workers at the shelters, run by non-governmental organizations, try to find a relative or guardian in the U.S. to care for the child, and “if no such adult is available, the children can languish in custody indefinitely,” the Times reported.
“Operators of these facilities say they are often unable to locate the parents of separated children because the children arrive without proper records,” wrote the Times‘ Caitlin Dickerson.
Once in the shelter system, “there is no firm process to determine whether they have been separated from someone who was legitimately their parent, or for reuniting parents and children who had been mistakenly separated,” a Border Patrol official told the Times.
Hundreds of children are now languishing for days at U.S. border stations, and border agents and child welfare workers tell NBC News that they are running out of space to shelter children who have been separated from their parents.
“The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives, and punishing children for being brought to safety by their parents by separating them, is fundamentally cruel and un-American,” Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission (an advocacy group that conducts interviews and monitoring at immigration detention centers) told The New York Times.
WHO ARE UNACCOMPANIED MINORS?
Another group of young migrants arriving at the southern border — called unaccompanied minors — are children without their parents. Most are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, fleeing violence and turmoil and seeking asylum, according to multiple reports.
From October 2017 through December 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services resettled 7,635 of these children, according to the Fact Checker section of the Washington Post.
U.S. law prevents their immediate deportation. The children are placed with sponsors — usually close relatives such as parents, siblings or aunts and uncles who live in the U.S. Placing these children with sponsors was a policy in place under the Obama administration and it goes back to the administration of President George W. Bush, according to USA Today.
In a May 29 statement, an HHS official said that the agency made phone calls to the sponsors of these children, but in many cases they did not respond or could not be reached.
A reason for this lack of response is that the sponsors “themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities,” Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in the statement.
The HHS was apparently concerned enough about the unaccounted children’s whereabouts that they referred 792 cases to the National Call Center, according to the AP.
DOES THE U.S. KEEP IMMIGRANT CHILDREN IN CAGES?
Senator Merkley told CNN that he saw undocumented children in cages sleeping on thin space blankets on a concrete floor at a McAllen, Texas, border patrol station that he toured on Sunday (prior to his trip to the Brownsville detention center that turned him away).
“They have big cages made out of fencing and wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out,” Merkley said. “It’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on. A space blanket is … the equivalent of foil. So obviously a very uncomfortable situation to be in.”
When Merkley asked why the children lived in such draconian living conditions, he said he was told that “this is what’s required for security, this is what’s required for control.”
The Washington Post Fact Checker found photos from 2014 of the same McAllen processing center — which deals with unaccompanied minors — showing the chain-link fence enclosures Merkley said he saw.
Trump administration officials did not deny the use of the fenced-in enclosures, but said “these short-term facilities do not employ the use of ‘cages’ to house UACs [unaccompanied alien children],” for their safety of the children, according to the Post.
“This is an enormous warehouse with chain-link fencing,” Astrid Dominguez, director of the Border Rights Center at the ACLU of Texas, tells the Washington Post. “I’ve been there when the numbers are high, and I’ve been there when the numbers are low, and I’ve seen kids and parents in there.”
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WHO ARE THESE FAMILIES SEEKING ENTRY AT THE BORDER?
Advocates for migrants have said most are fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America and should be treated as asylum seekers, not criminals. The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an asylum-seeking mother from the Congo who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter in California.
But Sessions has slammed the asylum system, claiming it is abused by immigrants and “dirty immigration lawyers,” according to USA Today.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border can proceed. Judge Dana M. Sabraw wrote that the policy “is brutal, offensive and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency,” according to Bloomberg.
Merkley tells the Washington Post he plans to write a memo for his Senate colleagues about his time in Texas, and push for governmental hearings on the issue.
“I’ll definitely be seeking other ways to draw attention to this new policy,” he said. “We are really besmirching the integrity of our government.”