In a renewed push to clamp down on the influx of illegal crossings along the southern U.S. border, the Trump administration is reportedly weighing a policy that would separate parents from their children in detention centers.
The measure could also penalize migrants who live in the U.S. illegally and try to bring their children into the country, The Washington Post first reported Thursday.
Families apprehended at the border have historically been detained together. This new policy, according to The New York Times, would place parents in adult detention centers and children either in separate shelters or in the care of “sponsors.”
The new Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen hasn’t yet given her official approval, the Times reported. But the White House is on board, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has approved the policy.
A DHS official said the agency has spent the year reviewing “procedural, policy, regulatory and legislative” changes to address illegal immigration. “The administration is committed to using all legal tools at its disposal to secure our nation’s borders and as a result we are continuing to review additional policy options.”
While DHS wouldn’t confirm or deny whether this specific policy had been reviewed, acting press secretary Tyler Houlton did say the agency is exploring “all possible measures” to protect children.
“It’s cruel for parents to place the lives of their children in the hands of transnational criminal organizations and smugglers who have zero respect for human life and often abuse or abandon children,” he said in a statement.
Immigration officials floated this type of draconian tactic in March, reasoning that it could sway people not to cross the border illegally, but never moved forward with the proposal. The decision may have been tied to a drop in illegal immigration in the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Then-DHS secretary John Kelly said the agency would only separate people in circumstances that presented a danger to the child.
People have the right to seek asylum and it is fully within U.S. and international law. Jen Smyers, Church World Service
Illegal border crossings then shot up in the second half of 2017. Official statistics show a 45 percent increase in family units and a 26 percent increase in unaccompanied children between October and November.
Yet some families have still been separated and prosecuted for improper entry, The Houston Chronicle found. The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a legal service provider in Arizona, said it had identified 155 cases of family separation as of late October 2017. Lawyers have argued that the practice is unconstitutional, while the administration has repeated the claim that separation is sometimes necessary to protect children from smugglers.
Jose Demar Fuentes, for instance, entered the U.S. on Nov. 12 with a 1-year-old boy who authorities couldn’t confirm was his son due to a lack of identification documents, ICE said in a statement. Authorities placed the child in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, while Fuentes was put in a detention center.
“Historically, some criminal smuggling organizations have paired non-relative children and adults with each other to minimize the chance of being detained if caught being smuggled across the border,” said ICE spokeswoman Liz Johnson.
Advocacy groups decried the possible measure.
“Formalizing a policy of forcibly separating families seeking asylum in the U.S. is inhumane, traumatic, and unnecessary and will not make America any safer,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Such a policy flies in the face of domestic and international child welfare and refugee principles and laws and would even further undermine U.S. obligations to ensure policies protecting family unity.”
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we are painfully aware that these families are seeking safety just as Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus did long ago.” Jen Smyers, Church World Service
Jen Smyers, the director of policy and advocacy for the Church World Service’s refugee resettlement program, told HuffPost that the policy proposal is “inhumane.”
“Donald Trump’s war on immigrants has reached a sad new low. Separating families who are fleeing gang violence is unconscionable. And yet we find ourselves in the position of once again issuing a statement that we are against proposals that are clearly inhumane — just days before Christmas no less,” she said in a statement. “People have the right to seek asylum and it is fully within U.S. and international law. Especially as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we are painfully aware that these families are seeking safety just as Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus did long ago.”
“The United States should not be in the business of separating children from their parents to fulfill some immoral campaign promise,” the statement continued. “CWS urges the administration to allow these families to have their case for asylum fully considered, and we stand ready to help them through legal services, materials goods, and solidarity through advocacy for their protection.”