A former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement warns that “long-term” or even permanent separation of families is a real ― and dire ― possibility as the Trump administration takes children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under its “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
“Based on my experience, I really am worried that we’re going to be hearing about this story in months and years to come because these kids are not with their parents,” John Sandweg, who served as acting director of ICE under former President Barack Obama, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Tuesday.
Sandweg said he found the decision to separate children, including infants, from their parents “shocking.”
“This president now has [Border Patrol agents] ripping babies out of mothers’ arms. That doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “Our policy [had been to] keep families together… at almost all costs because once you separate those families, you run a serious risk that they’ll never see each other again.”
Sandweg said that once separated, migrant children and their parents are put on divergent legal tracks that move at significantly different paces. While a parent could be deported very quickly from the U.S., a child’s case could take much longer to resolve.
“So now you have the parent back in Honduras or Guatemala, and the child could be in a childcare facility somewhere in the United States, thousands of miles from the border,” Sandweg said. “It gets very hard for the federal government to coordinate and track the location of both people.”
The former ICE chief said the federal government is ill-equipped for such a mammoth task.
“Frankly, nobody’s funded, nobody’s really had to do this before, it’s not something the agencies are trained to do or equipped to do and the scary part is, it leads to long-term separation that can extend for years,” he told O’Donnell.
“You can tell by… the scrambling that’s going on in the federal government, they weren’t prepared to implement this policy,” Sandweg added. “If they weren’t even ready to build the detention facilities for the children, I don’t think we can expect they’ve put together the logistics necessary to track the movements of the parents so they can later reunite them with the kids.”
The New York Times reported on Sunday that several parents have been deported from the U.S. in recent weeks without their children. Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez told the paper she was sent back to Guatemala soon after crossing the border illegally with her son. The boy, who is 8, remains in the United States.
When parents like Ortiz are deported without their children, “there is a very high risk” that they will be permanently separated from their kids, Sandweg told the Times.
“I am completely devastated,” Ortiz said last week, adding that she had no idea when she would see her son again.