Editorial: The government is still separating migrant families at the border. It needs to stop

Immigrants seeking asylum in San Antonio in June of 2018.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)
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President Trump’s cruel policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border ranks among the worst of his administration’s many bad decisions. The policy was put in place last year to serve as a warning to people who were living in fear of gangs and other mortal dangers in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and who were considering seeking asylum in the U.S.

The policy was a simple one: If a migrant family crossed the border and asked for asylum, the parents would likely be sent to jail on misdemeanor criminal charges and the children farmed out to other relatives in the U.S., to family friends, or to strangers in the foster care system. Even many of Trump’s staunch supporters balked at the ruthless, coldhearted policy, and Trump, under pressure, ordered it ended last June. A week later, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego added a court order to the mix, banning family separations unless they are necessary for the safety of the child.

That reasonable accommodation turns out to have been a loophole through which the government has continued to separate families. According to immigrant advocates, children are being taken from their parents based on long-ago convictions for crimes — such as driving under the influence — that would seem to have little or no bearing on whether the parents actually pose a risk. Families are also being separated on the mere suspicion that an adult is not really the parent.


Human decency demands that the government be certain before it tears a family apart.

The government acknowledged in court filings that it has separated 389 families since Sabraw’s court order went into effect in June, but immigrant rights advocates argue that the actual number is much, much higher. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told Congress last week that immigration officials are separating fewer than two families a day, a small fraction of the more than 1,600 families that arrive. But advocates report at least 40 separations a day along the California section of the border alone, with other separations occurring in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The government’s history of obfuscation with regard to border statistics has been documented in the past.

Judge Sabraw should take steps to ensure that his order against unnecessary separations is being observed. It’s unconscionable, if it’s true, that the government is continuing to inflict emotional and psychological damage on young children and their parents, especially on such flimsy pretexts. The American Psychological Assn. condemned the separations last year as “not only needless and cruel,” but a threat to “the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers.” The separations, though, fit in with the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to erect barriers to those seeking asylum, part of a broader attempt to throttle back overall immigration.

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It is entirely unclear how many asylum seekers at the border are telling untruths about who they are. The government claims that since October it has detected more than 1,000 cases of families that were not, in fact, families or were engaged in fraud by claiming children over age 18 were minors. That’s a sliver of the 189,000 families it says it apprehended during that period. While it’s true that some people have arrived with questionable birth certificates, that’s not reason to enforce overzealously. Human decency demands that the government be certain before it tears a family apart.

More broadly, the Trump administration — despite making immigration one of its front-burner issues — has failed utterly to come up with workable and legal strategies for dealing with the arrival and lawful asylum requests of tens of thousands of people. Many of them will ultimately not qualify; rampant crime and intolerable hardship do not qualify as “persecution” for the purposes of receiving asylum. But they have a right to ask, and the government’s inhumane efforts to slam the door in their faces runs counter to the law and to our international obligations. It’s inexcusable for the government to add to the trauma these families have already suffered by tearing them apart on flimsy pretexts.


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