Editorial: As Trump nears the exit, never forget his inhumane treatment of children

Detained migrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida.
Detained migrant children walk outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida in 2018. Arguing that it is necessary to fight the spread of COVID-19, the Trump administration has been expelling migrant children from the country.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

President Trump’s four years in office have been disastrous in so many ways. The crumbling of a functional federal government. Tens of thousands of lives likely lost because of his slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The abandoned efforts to rein in carbon emissions, shift to renewable energy sources and slow the advance of devastating climate change. But for utter base cruelty, none top Trump’s inhumane treatment of children.

A federal judge in New York ordered a halt Wednesday to the administration’s most recent abhorrent practice: the summary expulsion of some 8,800 unaccompanied children, mostly to Mexico. Ostensibly done to stymie the spread of COVID-19, the expulsions were made regardless of whether the children had legitimate asylum claims, whether they were being sent to a safe environment, or even whether there were arms ready to welcome them.

For the record:

7:39 a.m. Nov. 20, 2020This editorial initially stated that the Trump administration’s public charge rule had been placed on hold by the courts. That order was later lifted on appeal.

Many of the minors were expelled from the United States as soon as they arrived — removals that appear to defy federal laws — while others were detained in shelters and, in some cases, hotels until travel arrangements could be made.


How can elected officials expect to the public to follow their pandemic guidance when they aren’t willing to do the same?

The deportations of the children came under a 1944 public health law allowing the government to deny entry to people carrying a disease, though a U.S. magistrate judge said in September that the Trump administration had assumed “breathtakingly broad” powers to remove 200,000 people since March. The Associated Press reported last month that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control initially found no reason to invoke the law and deny people entry, but was ordered to do so by Vice President Mike Pence, who oversees the White House coronavirus response.

It’s clear that the pandemic gave the anti-immigrant zealots in the White House cover to expand on three years’ worth of coldheartedness toward migrants, particularly children.

These are some of the same government officials who thought it was a good idea to try to deter desperate families fleeing unimaginable violence and poverty in parts of Central America by arresting the parents for entering the country to ask for asylum — entries that were allowed under U.S. law — and then, because the parents were to be jailed, separating them from their children, who were then parceled out to relatives, foster care services and government shelters scattered around the country.

In its haste, the government didn’t bother to keep track of where the children and the adults wound up, and to this day, the advocacy groups assigned by courts to the task of reuniting these families are struggling to find the parents of 545 children. About two-thirds of the adults, the lawyers believe, were deported.

Even before the pandemic — and in some instances under the Obama administration — the federal government routinely detained children in often unsafe conditions for months despite a 1997 settlement requiring the feds to place minors in the least restrictive setting possible that meets certain health and safety standards, and to prioritize releasing them within 20 days to the custody of family members, guardians or licensed foster programs. (The Trump administration sought to undo those rules, but a court rejected its request to hold families with minor children indefinitely.)

As if that wasn’t enough cruelty, the Trump administration adopted the so-called public charge rule that jeopardized lawful permanent resident status for immigrants who tapped legally available support programs, including housing vouchers and food stamps that would benefit dependents who were U.S. citizens. As in, their children. The administration would have applied the rule even to immigrants who might use those programs.

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As advocates argued persuasively, federal law reasonably requires immigrants to be able to show they will not become reliant on government programs, but that’s a far cry from tapping such legal sources of help for short-term support. There will be a special place in history for the people who crafted these draconian and inhumane policies and enforced them, in many cases, against defenseless children.

Congress has over the years enacted laws that establish systems for adjudicating asylum requests and for handling the special cases of children arriving alone. That system admittedly is overwhelmed, but the response from a mature nation should not be to brutishly toss children to the wolves. It should be to expand our capacity for determining who deserves protections and should be allowed to stay, and also to expand our hearts.