Editorial: Separating children and parents at the border is cruel and unnecessary

U.S. Border Patrol agents question undocumented immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border fence on February 21, near McAllen, Texas.
(John Moore / Getty Images)

The Trump administration has shown that it’s willing — eager, actually — to go to great lengths to limit illegal immigration into the United States, from building a multi-billion-dollar border wall with Mexico to escalated roundups that grab those living here without permission even if they have no criminal record and are longtime, productive members of their communities. Now the administration’s cold-hearted approach to enforcement has crossed the line into abject inhumanity: the forced separation of children from parents as they fight for legal permission to remain in the country.

How widespread is the practice? That’s unclear. The Department of Homeland Security declined comment because it is being sued over the practice. It ignored a request for statistics on how many children it has separated from their parents, an unsurprising lack of transparency from an administration that faces an unprecedented number of lawsuits over its failure to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests for government — read: public — records. But immigrant rights activists say they have noticed a jump, and in December, a coalition of groups filed a complaint with Homeland Security over the practice.

Activists believe the government is splitting families to send a message of deterrence: Dare to seek asylum at the border and we’ll take your child.


When parents and children cross the border and tell border patrol agents they would like to apply for asylum, they often are taken into custody while their request is considered. Under the Obama administration, the families were usually released to the care of a relative or organization, or held in a family detention center. But under President Trump, the parents — usually mothers traveling without their spouses — who sneak across the border then turn themselves in are increasing being charged with the misdemeanor crime of entering the country illegally, advocates say. And since that is a criminal charge, not a civil violation of immigration codes, the children are spirited away to a youth detention center with no explanation. Sometimes, parents and children are inexplicably separated even when no charges are lodged. Activists believe the government is splitting families to send a message of deterrence: Dare to seek asylum at the border and we’ll take your child.

If the activists are right about the administration’s motives, that is abhorrent behavior by the government. The complaint by the coalition asked the department’s inspector general to investigate; it should do so, quickly. The practice is not only inhumane, it violates federal and international laws governing how asylum-seekers are to be treated. Governments should not criminalize the act of asking for help.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in San Diego that illuminates what Homeland Security is doing.

The filing says a mother and her young daughter, who are identified only by their initials, had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country facing a humanitarian crisis from growing political violence with religious overtones — after taking refuge in a Catholic church. The mother and daughter arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing Nov. 1 and immediately asked for asylum. Hearing the mother’s story, an asylum officer determined that she had a “significant possibility of ultimately receiving asylum,” according to the lawsuit, and allowed the pair into the country as the application proceeded.

At first, they were housed in a motel. But after four days, the government incarcerated the mother, 39, at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and, without explanation, sent her 7-year-old daughter to a children’s center near Chicago. In the four months since, they have been in touch only by phone, and only a half-dozen times, according to the court filing. Notably, the mother in this instance has not been charged with entering the country illegally. And there was no allegation offered by the government that she is an unfit mother, nor an explanation of why it did not release both mother and daughter to the custody of an immigration advocacy group.

These are not the actions of a humane government. To separate children from parents is unconscionable unless the child is at risk of harm. It becomes even worse when the separation comes as the family is asking for help and protection from the very people who then suddenly split them apart. This is just traumatizing the traumatized, and it needs to stop.


You also have to wonder about the humanity of the people who have concocted this policy.

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