Under the cover of multiple self-inflicted crises, President Trump has reportedly proposed reviving the widely reviled policy of separating children from parents as a way of discouraging immigration from Central America.
Separation “2.0’ is cloaked in what’s called the “binary choice” concept. This is a highly coercive, “Sophie’s choice” variant forcing parents to choose between an extremely long period of harsh detention with their kids—or being immediately separated from their children but promised an expedited process to rule on their asylum pleas.
The bottom line is that this is the second round of an immigration deterrence policy based on abject cruelty. The problem is that it didn’t work the first time. And there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that it will now either.
Recently I had an opportunity to visit an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in El Paso Texas. Not only was I given an extensive tour of the facility, but I had an unprecedented opportunity to speak freely with 42 women who were being held, waiting for decisions on asylum requests or resolution of charges related to illegally crossing the border.
The population of the ICE facility are called “detainees,” but they are treated like they are in jail. High barbed wire fences surround the facility, guards are everywhere, punishments like reduced outdoor and recreation time, meted out for minor rule infractions. Random one-minute phone calls are permitted for moms to speak with children or spouses. Many have no idea, still, of where their kids are—or when they’ll be reunited.
Making matters worse for these women is a kind of arbitrary, intentionally imposed uncertainty foisted on them by a system which can’t or won’t tell them how long they’ll be incarcerated, when they will be reunited with loved ones—or even when they can expect their next appearance before a judge. (Consider the fact that, nationally, there are less than 380 judges available to handle more than 700,000 immigration cases. And it’s not unusual for judges in the El Paso facility to see more than 25 cases in a single morning.)
The stories told by women fleeing corrupt and crime-ridden Central American nations were heartbreaking. These were tales of heroic determination to leave great danger and embark on treacherous journeys for a chance to live in a democracy where life was valued and opportunities to thrive were available for them and their children.
Maria (not her real name) is an 18-year-old woman from Honduras who said she fled because her parents were under constant threat from gangs. She was apprehended attempting an illegal border crossing near El Paso along with her 14-year-old cousin and 12-year-old niece. “I have bad asthma, so does my niece. All of us were thrown into ice boxes.’ I was so cold and soaking wet—and my asthma was acting up. I begged the guard to give me medicine and he just laughed in my face. He said, “Maybe next time you’ll think twice before coming over,” Maria said, adding that she would absolutely do it again.
Teresa, in her late twenties, had escaped El Salvador with her 8-year-old daughter. Teresa had been the victim of unspecified assaults and feared for her life and that of her child’s. As soon as she crossed the border, Border Patrol agents arrested her and took her daughter. When was the last time you spoke with you daughter? “A couple of months ago. And I didn’t know where she was….” She turned away, crying.
I had two questions for the 42 women I spoke with. First: If you could have known what happened once you arrived in the U.S., would still have made the journey? Second: If your friends back home knew what you have been going through, would they still be planning to make the trek?
Every single woman said she would absolutely do it again. And every one of the 42 said they knew of nobody back home who would be deterred by the hardships they would likely face. And when I asked a senior ICE official if he thought that the “deterrence policies” actually deterred anyone, he said, “Are you kidding? We’re experiencing a major surge in legal and illegal border crossings.”
As we were leaving, we heard a commotion behind us. Apparently, a guard was distributing a form that she demanded be signed by the women we had spoken to. It was a “media release” form—written in English only. But only a handful of the detainees were English-literate. Many were crying, a few running over to show us the papers that they couldn’t read.
In the innermost sanctums of the White House, people like loopy senior adviser Stephen Miller actually urged a receptive president to propose “zero tolerance” family separation policies last spring and, even in the face of hard evidence that these strategies don’t work, advise him now to double down.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a press conference last May could barely contain his tough guy glee advising asylum seeking parents: “If you don’t like [these policies], then don’t smuggle children over our border.” And then there was U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar who, in what may be the most surreal, reality-disconnected statement made by any public official on this matter said last July that what the government is doing for immigrant children is “one of the great acts of American generosity and charity.”
Put aside these last few months of race-baiting, hateful policies that have already traumatized thousands of children and parents. We do need a deep and thoughtful bipartisan effort to fix a badly broken immigration system. But with Republicans retaining control of the Senate after last Tuesday’s midterm elections, don’t expect a workable, humane solution any time soon.
It’s worth pointing out that our immigration crisis is a downstream problem. Upstream are the conditions which drive people to flee Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Investing in anti-corruption and anti-crime programs in those countries, including diverting kids form joining gangs, actually works. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in such activities saves billions downstream otherwise spent on apprehending, separating, detaining and prosecuting people.
I left Texas feeling deeply frustrated and very sad—and infuriated that people who represent all of us were putting forward policies that cause terrible trauma to children and parents. The fact that these policies don’t even work should give pause to all Americans who care about decency and actually expect leaders to offer humane proposals to solve our most important challenges.
Irwin Redlener, MD directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University where he is professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Department of Pediatrics. He also is president emeritus and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund. He is the author of “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America” Columbia University Press. Follow him on twitter, @IrwinRedlenerMD.