As of Monday, 711 children who were effectively kidnapped and held hostage by the Trump administration remain in government custody, supposedly “ineligible” to be reunited with their families. What happens to them now? The government won’t say, apparently doesn’t know and evidently doesn’t care.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who had ordered that those children and nearly 2,000 others be returned to their loved ones by last week, summed up the administration’s cruel incompetence at a court hearing Friday: “What was lost in the process was the family. The parents didn’t know where the children were, and the children didn’t know where the parents were. And the government didn’t know either.”
That was, of course, the whole point of this sordid and unforgivable exercise. The xenophobic cultural warriors in the administration – President Donald Trump, policy adviser Stephen Miller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – sent a message to refugees fleeing rampant violence in Central America: If you show up at the border seeking asylum, as is your right, you might have your children taken away and never see them again.
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The administration knew that child separations would be the inevitable result of a “zero tolerance” policy in which all undocumented border-crossers – most of them accused of nothing more than a misdemeanor offense – were jailed and put on trial. But officials did not care enough to implement a system for keeping track of parents and their children, some still in diapers.
If you have children, imagine how you would feel seeing them taken away like that. Hug your kids. Imagine not knowing where they are or whether you’ll ever get to hug them again.
Now imagine the terror and despair those 711 “ineligible” children must feel. It is monstrous to gratuitously inflict such pain. It is, in a word, torture.
In 120 cases, according to the government, a parent “waived” reunification with the child. This claim cannot be taken at face value, however, since immigration advocates cite widespread reports of parents being coerced or fooled into signing documents they did not understand.
Human nature binds parents with their children. It shocks and depresses me to have to write this, but I wonder whether Trump and his minions see these Central Americans – brown-skinned, with indigenous features – as fully human.
In 431 cases involving children between 5 and 17, officials reported, the parents have either been deported or have left the country voluntarily. Where are they now? How could the government let this happen? If these parents were going to be denied permission to stay in the United States, what was the big hurry to kick them out? Why couldn’t the administration wait until their children could be brought back from wherever they were being kept?
Even more incredibly, in 79 cases the children’s parents have been released into the United States. In other words, the parents have some legal status -- but the government has their children.
And in 94 cases, according to Trump administration officials, the parents cannot be located. What are the odds, do you think, that these men and women will ever be found? Where do parents go to begin the process of tracking down their children? How do you tell a 5-year-old that she may never see her mother and father again?
That’s the reported situation for children 5 and older. The government is also still holding 46 children under 5 whom officials cannot or will not give back to their parents. Think of the trauma being inflicted on 2-year-olds – to make a political point.
All of this is happening because Trump has no respect for law or due process and no sense of empathy. He was reportedly upset this spring by a rise in border crossings by asylum-seekers, who by law had to be allowed to stay pending resolution of their claims. He and Sessions seized upon the pretext – for which they have not provided evidence – that children were being “trafficked” into the country for some reason.
“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law,” Sessions said in May. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
Think, for a moment, of the millions of Irish, Italian, Eastern European and other immigrants who “smuggled” children into the United States – families such as Trump’s own. The only difference is that those earlier immigrants, though sometimes rejected at first, came to be seen as white.
Brown immigrants need not apply. Not if they want to see their kids again.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.