Maria, her husband, and their two kids had no better option. After enduring violence in Guatemala, including the murder of their son, the family fled north to the United States in early September 2017, hoping for a new beginning.
It is a decision any mother would make.
But after entering at the San Ysidro port of entry in California and arriving on U.S. soil, U.S. border officials promptly separated the family. Maria’s children, ages 5 and 14, were sent to a shelter in New York, while she and her husband were placed in separate facilities until they both landed at Otay Mesa Detention Center, near San Diego.
In a complaint filed by eight of the nation’s leading immigration legal services organizations (PDF), Maria wrote, “When I do talk to my kids [by phone] they tell me they don’t want to be there, they miss me, and they want to be with me.”
At the time of the complaint, her future, and the well-being of her children and husband, were unknown.
Maria’s story is the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” story. It’s the strategy of deliberately separating families who seek safety in the U.S. The administration believes they are deterring future migrants from making the journey and protecting children from human trafficking.
Instead, as a nation, we are criminalizing parents’ love for their children.
This is Trump’s mean-spirited attempt to deter immigration and send a cruel message that those fleeing violence and trying to seek asylum will have their children held hostage.
As Americans across the political spectrum learn about Trump’s policy, the shock settles in.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes, after reading first-hand accounts of mothers who had their children taken from them, wrote, “I’m thinking about someone doing that to me and my kids and I feel a rage so powerful I think I’m gonna pass out.”
Conservative blogger and radio host Erick Erickson challenged, “Pro-lifers, if you’re upset about ripping a child out of his mother’s womb, please be upset about ripping a child out of his mother’s arms at the border.” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called the policy a “betrayal of American values.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that “separating families would be extremely detrimental to basic child welfare principles.”
There are humane and sensible alternatives well within President Trump’s authority.
First of all, instead of railroading every family into a criminal proceeding, which requires taking children away from their parents, the administration should use discretion in charging immigration violations—especially for asylum seekers who pose no danger.
Second, the Trump administration should break with previous administrations and provide legal counsel to children. In America, no child should have to defend themselves in the court of law—particularly when their lives hang in the balance. And the administration could use additional alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, check-ins at ICE offices, or home visits, so women can more quickly be reunited with their kids.
Finally, children should not be housed in border patrol stations or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities. The White House should ensure that the Office of Refugee Resettlement remains the agency charged with housing kids—accountable for providing safe, humane conditions in facilities that provide access to education, recreation, and health care. In 2014, during the Unaccompanied Minor Crisis, I visited facilities in San Antonio, Texas, where relief organizations contracted by Health and Human Services set up communities that served such needs before children were turned over to parents or guardians.
Protecting vulnerable children wasn’t always up for debate. When President George W. Bush signed into law, with overwhelming Democratic support, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, both parties wanted to help kids fleeing difficult situations. Evangelical leaders said in 2014 that the legislation “appropriately assigns responsibility for the care of unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and ensures that children are placed with their families when possible” (PDF). Because it is the right thing to do.
But the Trump administration is less focused on what’s right and more focused on what they believe will send a message.
That message falls deaf on the ears of desperate women fleeing widespread violence and abuse. These mothers, like any parents, are going to take the risk of escaping to the U.S.—even if the journey is incredibly dangerous and family separation is a real possibility.
Most Americans want to see enforcement of a strong border along with a compassionate approach to treating others. They want to see Dreamers protected, our ports of entry secured, and new businesses launched by hard-working immigrants. Very few Americans want to see children put into massive detention facilities, callously separated from their mothers and fathers.
We want to live in an America that is a nation of laws and a nation of grace. An America that believes the family is a sacred unit.
Maria and her family didn’t flee violence and murder with malice in their hearts. They came to the U.S. because our country offered them a chance for a better future.
Let’s hope that never changes.
Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, host of the podcast Only in America, and author of the 2017 book There Goes the Neighborhood.