Child abuse accusations
This spring, President Donald Trump’s administration launched a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that essentially required separating children from parents as they crossed the border. The unprecedented policy, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in April, demanded that all adults entering the U.S. unlawfully at the southern border be jailed pending prosecution for illegal entry—even though a first-time crossing is a misdemeanor.
Rather than releasing asylum seekers pending hearings, (with the adults wearing ankle monitors in some cases), the administration began keeping parents in custody and flying small children and even infants thousands of miles away—to other states—often with no information about their parents’ whereabouts, as the Center reported.
The separation policy was rooted in administration arguments that separating children would deter Central American migrants from coming—and in prominent officials’ skepticism that asylum seekers from that region deserve refuge, as this report explains.
Criticism of the policy as cruel was swift, and on June 20 Trump issued an executive order halting the separation of children from parents. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, called the separations “government sanctioned child-abuse.” In response to a lawsuit, as the Center reported, federal Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego set a series of deadlines for the government to reunify families.
On July 16, Sabraw, ordered a temporary halt to deportations of families to give them more up to least a week to decide their options once they’re reunified. “Nothing about this case involves the normal situation where parents and children remain together, and have time to make profound, potentially life-and-death decisions,” Sabraw wrote.
On July 17, two Department of Homeland Security consulting medical experts submitted a letter to the U.S. Senate Whistleblower Caucus calling on Congress to stop plans to dramatically expand family detention.
“As experts in medical and mental health in detention settings,” the doctors wrote, “we watched in horror as innocent children were forcibly separated from their parents as the administration's ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy was deployed.”
The doctors called separating children “child abuse,” but crucially, they also attacked the very concept of family detention, recounting stark neglect they found during 10 investigations into existing family detention centers, one now closed.
Among the cases:
- A newborn found to have bleeding in the brain but who had not been seen by a physician until five days after arrival at a detention center.
- A 16-month-old who lost 32 percent of body weight over 10 days due to diarrhea and who hadn’t been treated with IV fluids or taken to emergency care.
- Children vaccinated with adult dosages.
- Children whose fingers were fractured or slashed by heavy prison doors.
- And in some locations, no availability of pediatricians or child and adolescent psychiatrists skilled at recognizing and treating trauma.
“The fundamental flaw of family detention is not just the risk posed by the conditions of confinement—it’s the incarceration of innocent children itself,” the doctors wrote. “In our professional opinion, there is no amount of programming that can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers.”
Trump’s position, though, is that “tough” policies are needed to discourage migration.
“Otherwise you'll have millions of people flowing up and just overtaking the country and we're not letting that happen,” Trump said in June. He asked Congress to pass legislation to allow the detention of children and parents together without the time limits imposed under a court case called the Flores Settlement and a subsequent ruling interpreted as setting a 20-day average time limit.
Detention, the administration argues, will ensure migrants appear in court, rather than disappearing while a hearing is pending. Migrant advocates argue that it’s inhumane to jail families because there are monitoring programs that allow asylum seekers to be freed, often to live with sponsors, and that have a solid record of getting them to appear in court.
United Nations’ representatives involved in human rights monitoring have also condemned Trump’s policies regarding families. In a statement, U.N. investigators specializing in the human rights of migrants and torture and degrading treatment argued that “the detention of children is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture.”
Noting that asylum seekers at the border mostly hail from violence-torn El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, a U.N. press release added, Trump’s policies “effect on children and their families is devastation reserved largely for indigenous and other non-white migrants.”