By now we have all seen the heart-breaking pictures of children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border. We have seen them locked in cages like animals, we have heard their cries for their families. There is a lot of misinformation floating around about how long this practice has been happening and who can fix it. President Trump has stated numerous times in press conferences and tweets that this is a law created by Democrats, and that only Democrats can fix it. However, Wednesday, June 20, he signed an executive order ending family separations but emphasized that the zero-tolerance policy is still in place.
“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep the families together,” said Trump who said he didn’t like the “sight” or “feeling” of children separated from their parents. He emphasized that his order would not end the “zero-tolerance” policy that criminally prosecutes all adults caught crossing the border illegally. The order aims to keep families together while they are in custody, expedite their cases, and ask the Department of Defense to help house families.
So, how did we get here?
In March of 2017, John Kelly, who was Director of Homeland Security at the time, confirmed that the administration was considering family separation. After receiving strong opposition and blowback, Kelly eventually backed down. However, in December 2017, eight organizations filed a complaint with the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties after noticing several cases of families being separated. Around the same time, Kelly was promoted to the president’s Chief of Staff, and Kirstjen Nielsen was confirmed by Congress as the new Director of Homeland Security. In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal entry into the United States. In just six weeks, well over 2000 children were taken from their parents.
In a twenty-five-minute briefing on Monday, Nielsen stated thirty-four times that this was a law. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump, Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway and others have all said the same. So, is it a law? Or policy? The heart of their argument is based on a legal settlement, the Flores Settlement Agreement. Doris Meissner, who was head of INS at the time and signed the settlement, explained to NPR that Flores is not a law, that it does have the “force of law,” but it’s a “judgment” on the part of the Trump administration on “how to implement that court decision.”
“[T]his implementation of the court decision that says children need to be separated from their parents because their parent is being prosecuted — that has never happened before in the past from the time that this settlement took place through other administrations, both Democratic and Republican administrations,” Meissner said.
Many have also said that this is an Obama- era policy and that he followed the same policies and practices. But when Politifact interviewed Peter Margulies, an immigration law and national security law professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, he said, “”Obama generally refrained from prosecution in cases involving adults who crossed the border with their kids. In contrast, the current administration has chosen to prosecute adult border-crossers, even when they have kids. That’s a choice — one fundamentally different from the choice made by both Obama and previous presidents of both parties.”
Furthermore, though there were rare cases where families were separated under President Obama’s administration, they were always quickly reunited once identified, even if that meant the release of the parent from adult detention.
According to The Washington Post, “The Trump administration implemented this policy by choice and could end it by choice. No law or court ruling mandates family separations. In fact, during its first 15 months, the Trump administration released nearly 100,000 immigrants who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, a total that includes more than 37,500 unaccompanied minors and more than 61,000 family members.”
While Obama’s policies prioritized deporting gang members, those who presented a national threat, and those who committed a felony, Trump has no such priorities. DHS can now detain anyone who is believed to have committed any crime- misdemeanor or felony- and because they have elevated first-time illegal entry from a civil offense to a criminal one, immigrant families can now be held and prosecuted.
The Washington Post also reports that after a holding period, DHS transfers children to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. They spend an average 51 days at an ORR shelter before they’re placed with a sponsor in the United States. Posts are already surfacing of immigrant children separated at the Texas border showing up by the busload in places as far away as Michigan and New York.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CBS that what is happening is a form of child abuse, and that adults at the facility are not allowed to comfort children who are crying for their mother. “We know very young children who are exposed to this type of trauma go on to not develop their speech, not develop their language, not develop their gross and fine motor skills, and wind up with developmental delays,” she said.
This new executive order offers a glimmer of hope that at least families will stay together moving forward, but with the new criminality of illegal border crossing, this means more families in detention under criminal prosecution. Additionally, it is possible that families will be detained indefinitely, and there is nothing in place to reunite the thousands of children who have already been taken from their parents, many being held completely across the country. Furthermore, there is no agency that has all of the records for the adults and their children that were separated, and there is great concern that some may never be reunited.
All of this information can be overwhelming and can leave us feeling helpless, hopeless, and like there’s nothing we can do. However, there are ways that we can make a tangible difference in the lives of these families.
First, we can call our Congressman and tell them we support the Keep Families Together Act. You can call the U.S. Congress Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or call the office of your elected official directly. Though this is an emotional topic, it’s helpful to be kind with the staffer. You can also ask if the Senator or Representative supports family separation, and if so, why? Even though President Trump signed this order, having laws on the books to keep this from ever happening again could be extremely beneficial given this administration’s history of changing their minds.
Next, we can donate. No amount is too small and in this type of situation, truly every little bit helps. Even if children will now be kept with their parents, thousands have already been separated- many shipped across the country- and all of these families will need help.
- RAICES(The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) is the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas offering free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families. By donating to RAICES, you support every aspect of legal aid for immigrant families. The group aims to provide legal services to every released unaccompanied child in the state, which could be around 13,000 kids. They also aim to pay off immigration bonds to free asylum seekers from ICE custody, letting them reunite with their children. Donate here.
- Kids in Need of Defense workss to ensure that kids do not appear in immigration court without representation, and to lobby for policies that advocate for children’s legal interests. Donate here.
- The Florence Project is an Arizona project offering free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody.
- Pueblo Sin Fronteras is an organization with two shelters along the border of the Sonoran Desert.
- Border Angels is a volunteer coalition that provides water, free legal help, and emergency services.
- The ACLU is currently raising money to help “defend asylum-seeking parents forcibly separated from their children.”
- ActBlue splits your donations between 12 different groups. The nonprofit fundraising platform for liberal causes has set up a page that benefits Al Otro Lado, The Florence Project, Neta, Innovation Law Lab, Fuerza Del Valle, The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, We Belong Together, United We Dream, The Women’s Refugee Commission, The ACLU, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, Human Rights First, and La Union de Pueblo Entero. You can donate any amount, and split it however you want between the groups.
We can also go. While it is usually not advisable to just show up to a crisis such as this one with no direction, there are direct needs and organizations to partner with at this time. If you want to give your time you can help interview migrants at the border. If you live in a border area or are willing to travel, have legal or paralegal experience, and speak Spanish, Mam, Q’eqchi’ or K’iche’, sign up to volunteer with the Texas Civil Rights Project. If you are an attorney, Lawyers for Good Government is organizing ways in which legal services can be donated.
Additionally, actions are being organized nationwide on June 30. The Progressive Social Network will be discussing their action plan at their general meeting this Sunday, June 24, at 2:30pm at the Goodwood Library. The Indivisible Metro Alliance will also be working with them, so feel free to attend and see how to get involved.
And finally, pray. We can pray and we can act. We can do both! Join a group of community members for prayer this Saturday, June 23, in front of the state capital at 12pm.
There is work to do but if we all do something, we will see the change. Let’s be the change we wish to see.