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Trump Ends Forced Separation of Migrant Families, Only to Send Children into Detention

Organizations across the country are planning a massive protest on June 30.
Trump separates migrant families

Image Courtesy : Hindustan Times

US President Donald Trump, on June 20, signed an executive order seeking to end the practice of separating children from their migrant parents who await prosecution for crossing the border into the country ‘illegally’.

This policy of separating children - which was part of Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy towards illegal immigration - was severely criticised by a cross-section of society, including humanitarian organizations, churches, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Democrats and members of Trump’s own Republican party. After protests in multiple cities and the occupation of a building of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by activists in Oregon, Trump announced that he would issue the executive order to stop this practice. 

A 21-year-old court ruling in US does not allow children to be held in detention for more than 20 days. The executive order calls upon the department of justice to seek a modification of the law to permit children to be detained indefinitely, so that families can be held together in detention centres.

“The President’s Executive Order seeks to replace one form of child abuse with another. Instead of protecting traumatized children, the President has directed his Attorney General to pave the way for the long-term incarceration of families in prison-like conditions”, said Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives.

The order also provides no relief to those parents and children already separated. In the period between May 5 and June 9, the Trump-administration, in pursuit of its zero tolerance policy towards ‘illegal immigrants’, forcibly separated 2,342 minors from their parents who face prosecution. On the 13th and 14th of this month alone, another 60 children were separated.

The grieving parents have no guarantee about being reunited with their children. It is on them that the administration has placed the onus of locating their children in government custody and seeking their return.

The poor coordination between the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, and the three Homeland Security agencies involved in the processing and detention of migrant families makes it difficult for parents to track down their children “once their paths diverge in the labyrinthine system,” New York times reported. A few days ago, a former head of ICE expressed his concern that hundreds of separated children may never be reunited with their parents.

“Please don’t put me on the plane.”

Ahead of the executive decision, the country and the world were haunted by harrowing reports of children being separated from their parents.

A few days ago, sobbing in the courtroom, a Honduran woman who was being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border told the attorney that her infant was taken away from her while she was nursing the child in the detention centre. When she tried to prevent the authorities from taking away the child, she was handcuffed.

In another instance, earlier this month, 8-year-old Antony was separated from his mother and sent to a migrant children shelter, after which his 25-year-old mother, Elsa Ortiz, was deported back to Guatemala on a plane even as she pleaded with the authorities, “Please don’t put me on the plane.. I can’t go without my son.”

“If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally," Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said last month, while announcing the administration's policy on illegal immigration.

A counsel at an international legal firm whose lawyers have spoken to Elsa said, “From our work on the border, we have seen a significant increase in the number of moms separated from their children, and many of them have reported they didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye before the separation.” A number of migrants reported that they were told that their children were being taken for a bath, after which they never saw them again.

Accusing Sessions of child abuse, racial discrimination, and immorality, 640 members of the Methodist church signed a statement addressed to pastors in Alabama and Virginia where Sessions is a member. Urging the pastors to “dig deeply into Mr. Sessions’ advocacy and actions that have led to harm against thousands of vulnerable humans,” the statement read, “As members of the United Methodist Church, we deeply hope for a reconciling process that will help this long-time member of our connection step back from his harmful actions and work to repair the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly children and families.”

The condemnation of this practice of separating children from parents has come not only from the Democrats in the opposition but also from within the Republican party. 13 Republican Senators, including John McCain, Pat Roberts and Susan Collins, wrote a letting urging President Trump to stop this “inhumane” practice.

“Although enforcing our immigration laws is an essential responsibility of the federal government, it must be done in a way that is consistent with our values and ordinary human decency,” the letter read.

White House chief of staff John Kelly, on being asked to respond to people who called this policy “cruel and heartless”, told NPR, “I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of - put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States..”

The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, had earlier said, “We have high standards. We give them meals and we give them education and we give them medical care. There are videos, there are TVs.”

Drugs and abuse at “migrant shelters”

One such centre - providing the children with meals, medical care and TV - is Shiloh Treatment Center, which is contracted by the government to house immigrant children. This centre, according to its website, “specializes in providing treatment services for children and youth with behavioral and emotional problems that pose a danger to themselves and others. These children and youth are often described as difficult to manage, out of control, hyperactive, violent and rebellious.”

An investigation by Reveal showed that children at this centre, apart from being manhandled, were also injected with "powerful psychiatric drugs", in order to keep them under control. "Parents and the children themselves told attorneys the drugs rendered them unable to walk, afraid of people and wanting to sleep constantly, according to affidavits filed on April 23 in the US District Court in California," the report noted.

One of the girls testified in the court, saying “The supervisor told me I was going to get a medication injection to calm me down. Two staff grabbed me, and the doctor gave me the injection despite my objection and left me there on the bed.” Another child complained that when she tried to open a window, the supervisor at the centre hurled her against a door and "choked her until she fainted," Reveal reported.

Apart from Shiloh, there are 70 other such centres contracted by the US government to house immigrant children, deemed as "unaccompanied minors" after being forcibly separated from their parents. Of the 3.4 billions dollars coughed up by the government for these private companies in the last four years, 50% was paid to centres with a known history of abuse, including sexual.   

Even without being subjected to any abuse and drugs, these children who are separated from their parents and placed in institutions would undergo traumatic experiences that can cause long-term and irreparable physiological and psychological damage, researchers have warned.

Even when "[t]hey're not flailing and screaming, underneath in their bodies, their stress system is still highly activated - silently, invisibly,” the Director of Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child said.

The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics has called this policy of forcibly separating children from parents as “child abuse”, and in violation of “everything we stand for as paediatricians”.

Nonetheless, despite unanimous condemnation from all sections, the President remained unfazed, and blamed the Democrats for weak immigration laws, which, he argued, had forced the administration to take harsh such measures.   

On June 15, Trump tweeted, “The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda. Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration,” adding, in an out of place sportsman tone, “Go for it! WIN!”

Three days later, he followed it up with another callous tweet, “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Border [sic] Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!”

Protests, which began in a number of cities in the US on Tuesday, had begun swelling ahead of Trump’s decision. That night, thousands of protesters gathered near a hotel in Philadelphia where Vice-President Mike Pence was attending a fundraising event. “The protest, which organizers said numbered several thousand, evolved into a march, and demonstrators locked arms as police tried to move them off the streets,” the Slate reported. Displaying placards saying "we love you" and "we are with you", hundreds gathered outside a New York Airport where a plane supposedly carrying immigrant children landed a few days ago.

It was only after the further intensification of protests and the occupation in Oregon that Trump relented and passed the executive order.

However, it is important to note that this order does not roll back the zero tolerance policy or provide any relief for the migrants. Instead, it merely allows the children to be in the same detention centre as their parents as they await prosecution for the ‘crime’ of attempting to escape from death and violence in Central American countries where their lives have been made miserable, often as a result of decades of US intervention in the region.        

Protests are expected to continue and culminate in a nationwide action on June 30.

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