Jonathan P. Baird: Separating immigrant children from their parents is a horror show with historical precedent

  • In this June 18, 2014, file photo, two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on television from a holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children were being processed at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 6/14/2018 12:20:07 AM

Occasionally in politics a story comes along that is so horrifying and morally reprehensible that it commands immediate attention. Such is the Trump administration’s policy of indefinitely separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children as they cross the U.S. border.

On June 7, Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer litigating the class-action challenging the family-separation practice, stated he thinks 1,500 to 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. This includes babies, toddlers and other small children torn from their mothers and fathers.

In the great majority of cases, the children have no idea where their parents are and when they will be able to see them again.

The Trump administration is traumatizing a huge number of innocent children, putting them at high risk of suffering lifelong negative impacts. In response to the current situation, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging the administration in the strongest possible terms to reject its family-separation policy: “Separation from the very parents who would provide them with love, stability and reassurance only exacerbates children’s suffering. ... Fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious stress without the buffering protection afforded by stable, responsive relationships – known as toxic stress – can harm the developing brain and harm short- and long-term health.”

I am trying to visualize the situation of the detained immigrant children. They are being warehoused and held as prisoners in unsanitary and freezing conditions for months. Rows and rows of children sleep on thin mats behind chain-linked fences. The cells are like dog kennels or large cages. The children and the immigrants call the facilities hieleras or iceboxes. The ACLU just released a report about the level of abuse by Customs and Border Patrol and ICE of children in these hieleras. It is not a pretty picture.

NBC has reported that half of the detained children are under age 12.

When U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley tried to inspect the children’s living conditions in a Brownsville, Texas, facility, prison operators locked him out and called the police. Sen. Merkley was not allowed to carry out an inspection. The detention center is a former Walmart with blacked-out windows. Not exactly a message of transparency.

Trump’s family-separation policy has no legal basis. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described this Kafkaesque policy as a “zero-tolerance” immigration measure. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, has said the purpose of family separation is deterrence of illegal immigration.

Contrary to past policies in which families were kept together and only detained for a limited time, the Trump administration has tried to work around time restrictions previously imposed by courts.

The federal court in San Diego has now preliminarily refused to dismiss the ACLU class-action lawsuit, ruling that the “wrenching separation” of families may violate the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, family integrity is considered a fundamental due process right. In this case, the Trump administration has failed to show any compelling government interest in separating parents and children. Nor have they used the least restrictive means to fulfill their interests required under due process law.

For those who may wonder, due process rights do apply to undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that in 2001 in the case of Zadvydas v Davis.

The Trump administration family-separation policy is premised on a racist dehumanization of those seeking to immigrate to the United States. To treat families in such a cruel fashion is not to accord them rights as fellow human beings. What happened to that old Republican favorite of “family values”?

Trump recently denounced unauthorized immigrants as “animals.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders later corrected her boss, stating, not reassuringly, that he only meant members of the MS-13 gang.

I wish I could say the current family separation policy is an aberration in American history. It is not. It is hard not to be reminded of both Native American and African American history.

In the last third of the 19th century, the government removed tens of thousands of Native Americans from their families and forced them into government-funded boarding schools. In these schools, the Native American children were forced to change their names, learn English, dress like Americans and convert to Christianity. Later in the 20th century, as many as 25 to 35 percent of Native American children were taken from their families with the great majority placed in white households.

Slaveholders sold the children of African American slaves away from their families. Enslaved parents lived with the constant fear that they or their children might be sold away. The destruction of families was one of the most evil aspects of slavery.

The Trump administration family-separation policy represents a profound devaluation of families of color and is in keeping with the most racist and inhumane traditions of U.S. history. This policy is a disgrace, immoral and likely unconstitutional, and we must do everything within our power to vigorously oppose it.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)

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