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Opinion

Editorial: The Trump administration is using any excuse it can find to separate migrant families

 Texas tent encampment houses children separated from their parents
A Texas tent encampment houses children separated from their parents, many times for spurious reasons.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The federal government has continued to separate migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border despite a court order that sought to severely curtail the practice. Over the course of a year , 911 more children were taken, the American Civil Liberties Union charged in a court filing Tuesday. And where did the ACLU get those details? From the government itself.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana M. Sabraw in San Diego had ordered the government in June 2018 to end family separations — a policy concocted to deter migration from Central America — and to reunite more than 2,000 families. But that ruling also allowed the government to continue to separate families under what was supposed to be a narrow set of circumstances — a determination that “the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”

On the face of it, that sounds reasonable. The government clearly has an interest, and a responsibility, to ensure that children it apprehends at the border are safe and secure. As Sabraw recognized, that can on rare occasions require taking custody of a child from its parent if there is clear evidence that the child’s welfare is endangered.

But the records cited by the ACLU show that the government’s arguments for separating families are often weak and its reasoning spurious. In many cases, the government justifies it by citing past acts that seem to have no bearing on someone’s fitness as a parent: decade-old convictions for minor criminal acts here in the U.S., for instance, or unsupported allegations of criminal activity or gang affiliations in home countries, or crimes that, on closer examination, turn out to be traffic infractions. Or, worse, mere allegations with no convictions.

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But an ancient conviction for a minor crime or traffic infraction is not evidence of a current threat. A bad driving record does not make one a bad parent. An unchanged diaper is not evidence of abuse, but the government cited it in separating one family. (The father decided not to awaken an ailing child to change her wet diaper; a government agent interpreted that as abuse and took the child away.) In one case, a child was separated from a parent who had been accused of damaging property valued at $5.

Common sense says these are not reasons to inflict psychological pain on minors, or to inflict heart-wrenching agony on parents. According to the ACLU’s analysis, the average age of the separated children is 9 years old; 20% of the children are under age 5. Two 1-year-old infants were taken away and not reunited with their parents for five months.

The statistics cited by the ACLU only begin to tell the story of the government’s errant acts, because the information the government has provided is incomplete. In half of the cases involving alleged criminal history, for example, there are no supporting details about whether the parent was ultimately convicted. The ACLU is seeking fuller reports from the government, which the administration ought to be providing to the public anyway without being ordered to do so by a judge. This is an area that demands transparency.

And frankly, the Trump administration’s animus toward immigrants and its inhumane border policies have eroded any right it might have had to the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, the government must recognize parents’ right to due process, and it must follow established norms and procedures for determining when custody must be suspended.

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Far too often, this administration has acted against the best interests of migrant children, whether it’s warehousing them in ill-maintained detention centers in defiance of the 1997 Flores agreement, which requires minors be held in the least restrictive conditions possible for no longer than 20 days, or these heartless decisions to take them away from their parents.

Underlying all of this is that these are mostly asylum seekers — families fleeing dangerous neighborhoods or life-threatening poverty and hoping to find sanctuary here in the U.S. Whether they receive that help is a matter for the immigration courts, but in the meantime, the government should not be treating them as criminals, and it certainly should not be abusing children psychologically by spiriting them away without a damned good and well-justified reason to do so.


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