Recent news stories have detailed how President Trump’s immigration policies continue to target women and children and rip families apart. He has instructed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel to arrest, detain, and deport indiscriminately.
Just this week, two brothers in Maryland – one a 19-year old rising soccer star who had just secured a college scholarship – were deported after one of them made a courtesy call to ICE to inform officials about his college plans. Earlier this year, a mother of three children – all U.S. citizens – who had fled the drug cartel violence in Mexico, was whisked away from her home and family in Ohio by ICE officials and deported. And, just last week, President Trump elevated John F. Kelly from secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to White House chief of staff, applauding him for his “tremendous results” in implementing the refugee ban and ramping up immigration enforcement.
Publicly, DHS and the White House purport to be going after “bad hombres.” But what they really are doing is targeting the most vulnerable among us: youth, unaccompanied children, and their families, as well as family units who come to the US seeking protection.
The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) first observed the use of family separation as a tool of immigration enforcement in the US in 2006 when we investigated detention conditions at the T. Don Hutto and Berks family detention centers, in Texas and Pennsylvania respectively. The women and children we spoke with reported that threats of family separation were routinely used as a form of discipline. I will never forget the strange silence of walking into rooms filled with young children who were afraid that if they made too much noise they would be taken away from their mom or dad. I thought that was the low point of what this country could throw at immigrant children and their families. It turns out I was wrong.
The Obama administration laid the foundation for family separation as a tool of immigration enforcement. But the Trump administration wasted no time in expanding it into a fierce weapon indiscriminately wielded against women and children around the country.
Over the past two months, for example, ICE has been conducting a “surge initiative” against parents and other sponsors of unaccompanied children. The stated aim of this operation is to disrupt and disband human smuggling, a critical and necessary task. But ICE is not targeting the leaders of smuggling rings, or even their foot soldiers. Instead, it is using information provided by unaccompanied children – at the time they arrive at the border – to locate, interrogate, detain and, in some cases criminally prosecute, their parents and other relatives. That last piece cannot be over-emphasized. The US government is now attempting to criminally prosecute parents for trying to save their children’s lives.
Across the country, ICE is demanding that sponsors come to ICE offices (places from which many undocumented individuals have been deported in recent months) to discuss potential trafficking or smuggling charges. Parents who refuse to attend these interviews are visited repeatedly at their homes and are interrogated about the unaccompanied child’s trip to the US. In the most extreme cases, ICE has misrepresented the purpose of their visits, telling the sponsor that he or she must let ICE agents into the home as part of the process for reunifying with their children. Often, other children – including those that are US citizens – are present in the home when ICE arrives. The children are left not only traumatized and terrified from these interrogations, but also at increased risk of ending up in the US foster care system if their parent is detained and deported. This “surge initiative” is only one piece of a growing attack on children and families by the Trump administration.
In March, when then-Secretary Kelly announced that the administration was considering a formalized policy of separating children from their parents at the border as part of its deterrence strategy, the blowback was swift and unequivocal. Americans from all walks of life spoke out against the policy and Kelly walked it back.
We must continue to speak out forcefully and in unison against these wrong-headed policies. This is not who we should be as a country and this is not how we should treat our children and families. ICE’s “surge initiative” is not an anti-smuggling campaign and it is not sensible immigration enforcement. It is further proof that the administration is targeting children and families. Breaking apart families and leaving children without parents to care for them will not make us safer. Deporting teenage boys with bright futures ahead of them does nothing to advance anyone’s well-being. Ripping mothers away from their children is antithetical to building strong families and communities. Past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, recognized that smart enforcement requires discretion and respect for the fact that immigrants are woven into the fabric of our communities and families. It is time for this administration to end its targeting of women and children and to change course on its immigration policies, full stop.