On Friday, the Trump administration revealed that it may need up to two more years to identify thousands of migrant children who may have been separated from their families at the southern border. The depressing acknowledgement, made a full year after the separation policy was originally announced, underlines the long-term impact of one of the Trump administration’s most shameful acts. It also demonstrates how ill-equipped the government is when it comes to dealing with the consequences of Trump’s reckless war on immigrants.
In a Friday night court filing, the Justice Department claimed it would need at least a year, and as much as two years, to analyze the roughly 47,000 cases of unaccompanied minors taken into federal custody from July 2017 to June 2018, when U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered both an end to the separations, and that the children be reunited with their families.
It’s still not clear exactly how many children were taken from family members at the border over that period, and it might not be until after the 2020 elections. At the time of Sabraw’s ruling against the separations, about 2,700 children were in federal custody as a result of the policy, but a watchdog report released in January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that thousands of additional families may also have been separated at the border, starting months before the Trump administration announced the policy. After the ACLU convinced Judge Sabraw that those additional children should be added to his reunification order, he told the Trump administration to submit a proposal on how to address the problem.
That proposal listed several complications to justify the long time frame, chief among them the massive number of cases to review, which the administration claims it does not have the resources to do manually. Instead, a multi-agency team plans to run a statistical analysis of the tens of thousands of cases in an attempt to determine which children were most likely to have been separated from their families through the policy. Cases flagged by the analysis would then receive manual review. The government says that the still unknown number of additional children had already been released into the care of sponsors before the judges’ June order, and that the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol didn’t create a searchable database tracking the children until April 19 of last year — meaning there is no easy way to search the cases of children taken into custody before then.
The ACLU, which has been waging a legal fight against the government on behalf of the affected families, quickly rejected the Trump administration’s time frame. The organization’s lead attorney in the case, Lee Gelernt, told CNN on Saturday that the ACLU would “strongly oppose any plan that would give the government up to two years to find these children” and that the Trump administration needed to do more moving forward:
The government’s proposed plan reflects the Administration’s continuing refusal to treat these separations with the urgency they deserve. … We are talking about the lives of children, potentially thousands of them. The government was able to quickly gather resources to tear these children away from their families and now they need to gather the resources to fix the damage.
They won’t, or at least not voluntarily.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward migrants mandated that all undocumented adults crossing the border face criminal prosecution and be placed in federal custody even if they were traveling with children. The official line from the Trump administration and its allies was that the policy was about following the letter of the law, but it was really meant to discourage migrants from wanting to ever come to the U.S. in the first place. To that end, the cruelty of the separations, magnified by the administration’s incompetence in implementing them, and the publicity the policy and the resulting crisis inevitably received were very much the point. And that was despite evidence that the policy would actually deter would-be migrants in the first place, and over all, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric appears to have had the opposite effect.
From the very start of Trump’s presidency, nativist hardliners in the White House like policy adviser Stephen Miller have worked to implement as many anti-immigration measures as possible, both to appeal to Trump’s anti-immigrant base, and, as a larger goal, to ruin America’s long-standing reputation as a nation of immigrants. Migrant children weren’t just collateral damage in this ongoing war on immigrants — they were intended damage.
Regardless of how long it takes the Trump administration to account for, let alone address, the full scale of that harm, it may be irreparable, as this new HuffPost report explains:
Almost a year later, most [of the separated children] have been reunited with their mothers and fathers. But HuffPost spoke with six parents who said their kids remain deeply traumatized. They describe how their once affable sons and daughters are now angry, withdrawn and unable to sleep. Some don’t want to go to school or leave the house, for fear of being separated once again, and constantly burst into tears. Other children have physical scars, from self-harming after prolonged periods in detention. And at least 200 children remain permanently separated from their parents who were deported back to life-threatening situations and opted to keep their sons and daughters safe in the U.S.
Mental health experts and lawyers told HuffPost that family separation, which happened to potentially thousands of families before the implementation of zero tolerance and which continues despite the policy’s termination, could traumatize children for the rest of their lives. … Going to therapy can help children work through the damage, but most separated families don’t have access to or the resources for mental health services. In the U.S., only six states and the District of Columbia provide undocumented minors with health coverage. For families who were reunited back in Central America, there is often no therapy available in remote, poverty-stricken regions.
Furthermore, if the intended purpose of the separation policy, or any of the administration’s other anti-immigrant efforts, was to deter migrants — it’s failed spectacularly. A decade-high number of migrants have tried to make the journey to and over the southern U.S. border in recent months, a surge which many immigration experts believe was prompted by Trump’s ever-present anti-immigrant rhetoric and repeated empty threats to close the border.
Thanks to deliberately intolerant policies, incompetent or negligent leadership, and an overwhelming burden on under-resourced U.S. agencies, Trump has created a real humanitarian crisis at the southern border in place of the fake security crisis he and his allies conjured for their rise to power.
The border crisis, like most crises, can only be solved by good governance, evidence-based policy, resources, and compassion — which is another way of saying that it won’t be solved by the current administration. And even if Trump could address the problem with something other than a fantastic wall, why would he want to?
Crisis and chaos, real or imagined, have often worked to Trump’s political advantage. It’s already more than clear that the Trump will triple-down on immigrant scaremongering as a central pitch in his reelection campaign. In that sense, it’s a good political strategy to break the immigration system, overwhelm the asylum system, highlight the chaos, blame Democrats for the lack of a wall to contain it, and scramble all other news cycles with the outraged crossfire.
On his signature issue of immigration and border security, President Trump is running for reelection on the effectiveness of his sabotage. If he loses, the damage will be his legacy, and the intolerable aftermath of the child separation policy is a preview of what it will be like as we try to pick up the pieces.