A little child cries out loud, as his or her parent is arrested and taken away, dragged to a detention centre, amidst shouts and protests in Spanish, English, even Mayan. Imagine being either one- the wailing child, or the parent with no choice, no options. This was supposed to be a fresh start.
Over the last few weeks, the Trump government’s zero-tolerance policy towards illegal immigrants at the border has been drawing a lot attention on the internet, with several celebrities, activists, NGOs and thousands of others protesting against the separation of children from their parents.
What exactly was this policy? In May, the US government enacted this zero-tolerance policy, which it had announced in April. This effectively meant that anyone crossing the border without authorization is charged with a federal misdemeanour. Thus, when children accompany adults crossing the border, the children are placed under the Office of Refugee Resettlement or a co-ordinating agency, while criminal cases are pursued against their parents/guardians with whom they entered. Earlier, illegal entry was a civil matter, and the new policy made it a criminal one. Since children cannot be kept in detention centres along with the parents, they are kept in separate facilities. In a nutshell- the children and parents are separated, and eventually deported.
Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General had earlier defended this by stating “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
There were varying reports, but 2000 or more children have since been separated from their parents. The internet and media blew up with pictures, videos and audios clips of these children crying for their parents, being held in “cages” and so on. Airlines like American, United and Southwest had requested the federal government to not use their airlines to fly the separated children back. The United Nations called upon the American government to stop the separation of children from their parents. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, even went so far as to call this practice “abuse”. (It is of course an entirely different matter that the USA then went on the withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council.)
Following the outcry, earlier this week President Trump signed an executive order, to keep families together. A federal judge also ordered that the families be re-united. In a rarely seen instance, First Lady Melania Trump took a stance, and made her statement, speaking up for these children. She had visited the children in shelters at the US-Mexico border. In her statement, she said that she “hates to see” families separated thus. As per the statement, the First Lady hopes that both sides can work together for successful immigration reforms, and she believes that the USA must be a country that follows all the laws, but also one that “governs with the heart”.
The wheels appear to be in motion for the reunification of the illegal immigrant families, but a lot of questions remain. There has been no specified time frame for bringing the parents and children back together. Another issue is that the Department of Homeland Security has stated that the reunification will not take place until the parents’ deportation procedure is complete. The parents must accordingly request for their child to be deported with them. Here arises a problem- most of these parents fled from their homes and attempted to cross into the US to help their children escape the situation at home. Parents could, and some have, chosen to be deported without the child, to protect the child from violence back home. Yet another problem is one faced by parents who were deported earlier, without being informed of where their children are, and how to find them.
Of course, the office of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has posted information, and a hotline and e-mail address for parents to find out whether their children are with the Office of Refugee Resettlement or the Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration. These agencies are also tasked with co-ordinating information on the location of each child and ensuring communication (at least twice a week) between the parents and children. Several Human Rights activists have reported, however, that this has not been done, and parents are often denied any contact with their children.
All things considered, the biggest question remains- what about the trauma undergone by these children? While these measures try to fix the situation, the damage cannot be undone for the 2000 or so children, forcefully separated from their parents, and thrown into the chaos of shelters. The sad truth is summed up in the order by Federal Judge Sabraw, which was mentioned earlier-
“The unfortunate reality is that under the present system, migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property, catalogued by the government.”
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