Zero Tolerance at the Border a Disaster for Families


August 2, 2018

At Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Oversight of Immigration Enforcement and Family Reunification Efforts,” Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) minced no words. He said, “If families and children are going to be kept in federal custody they must be kept in facilities where they will be treated humanely, and with the basic dignity that all people—no matter what their immigration status—deserve. Unfortunately, recent media reporting I’ve seen suggests the federal government is failing miserably at this task.”

Advocates participate in a walk-out during the committee hearing

Representing CHN, I was among those from immigration, faith-based and other organizations, including some children, who participated in a silent walk-out when the Chief of Border Patrol testified. The idea was to send a strong message that every child must be returned to his or her family.

But I wanted to hear what the officials would say, so after the walk-out, I quietly returned. What I heard was shocking and unconscionable. There was no clear system in place linking children to their parents when the separation took place. The witnesses representing the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services could not say how many immigrant children remained separated from their parents nor that there was a specific plan in place to reunite parents with children, including finding the over 400 parents who were deported without their children. Information about and access to detention centers is lacking. This list goes on.

There have been reports that many parents, including some with potentially legitimate asylum claims, were coerced into signing documents they did not understand resulting in their deportation while their children were left behind. In the words of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Administration has been “using kids as hostages to make people give up their asylum claims.”

Consequences of the zero tolerance policy of the Trump Administration announced by Attorney General Sessions on April 6 were not unforeseen by some whose warnings were ignored. Commander Jonathan White, former coordinating official of the reunification effort at HHS, testified that he had expressed concerns prior to April 6. “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” White said. President Trump and AG Sessions were unimpeded.

One witness, ICE official Matthew Albence, stunningly likened the detention centers where kids are being held to summer camps. Yet when asked, none of the witnesses said that they would want their children in such a facility.

The last member of Congress to question the witnesses was Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). After hearing several witnesses suggest that regular phone contact between parents and children was available free of charge, she had had enough. Her description of what women in one CA facility she visited was riveting. Some women reported being charged 85 cents per minute to talk with their children. These same women worked all day at the facility doing menial tasks like cleaning toilets while earning only $1 per day. Senator Harris also shed light on the practice of shackling women who were in their third trimester of pregnancy.

From its inception there was no plan in place to reunify parents and children separated at the border. During the hearing reference was made to White House Chief of Staff and immigrant hardliner John Kelly’s defense of the “zero-tolerance” as a “tough deterrent”. His insensitivity to and mischaracterization of immigrant families and his assertion of the illegality of border crossings (not all crossings are illegal) is appalling. (See May 11 Business Insider article reporting on Kelly’s NPR interview.)

At the hearing no one on the panel argued that the “zero-tolerance” debacle was a success. On June 20, the President signed an order reversing the policy. However, unwinding the policy and dealing with the untold harm already done to immigrant families will last a lifetime for many of the victims.

Committee members present acknowledged that they too bore some responsibility to solve this issue. Bills have been introduced on both sides of the aisle, some bipartisan, but none have moved forward. Clearly what is needed is a comprehensive solution to immigration reform which recognizes and respects immigrants and adheres to the principle of the importance of family unification. Until we get that needed outcome, Congress should act to ensure that the victims of the Trump Administration’s inhumane policies are reunited, and that no more children are torn from their parents.

family detention