Exactly one year ago on Thursday, after a national uproar, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Six days later, a federal judge ordered the reunification of thousands of parents and children whom the U.S. government had torn apart. Even though the separation policy had already been officially halted, the court issued a preliminary injunction against it. At the time, it seemed that one of the ugliest chapters of this vicious administration had ended.
But if there’s one thing this administration rarely backs down on, it’s cruelty. Family separation, it turns out, never really stopped. According to Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project, just over 700 families were separated between last June and late May. Without legal or political intervention, he fears that the number could reach 1,000 by the end of this summer.
In New York alone, Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program for Catholic Charities, estimated that his office has seen more than 100 separated kids in the last year. “As the time between the injunction and the present increases, more and more separated youth are in fact arriving in New York shelters,” he said.
To continue separating families, immigration agents appear to be taking advantage of a loophole in the court decision. The injunction doesn’t apply when parents have criminal histories or communicable diseases, which might require them to be quarantined away from their children. Nor does it explicitly apply when children are accompanied by relatives like siblings or grandparents rather than parents, unless those relatives are their legal guardians. And it permits family separation when a parent is deemed a danger to the child.
On the surface, these exceptions seem perfectly reasonable, particularly given the threat of human trafficking. But Enriquez, a lawyer, said they “left a big gaping hole that the government is driving a truck straight through.”
As part of the case the court ruled on, the ACLU receives lists approximately every month of separated families, with brief notations about the government’s justifications. Some of the misdeeds that are listed, said Gelernt, are extremely minor. For example, a 6-month-old was taken from his father because the father had a conviction for marijuana possession. Another dad lost his kid because he admitted to a conviction for driving with an expired license.
In some cases, the parents hadn’t been convicted of anything at all, but border agents claimed that they had gang affiliations. In other instances, agents stretched the definition of “communicable diseases” to apply to situations that don’t involve quarantine.
A year after the injunction, the Trump administration still has not created a system to help separated families reconnect.
“There is no tracking system,” Enriquez said. “No comprehensive information-sharing system, and no reliable method by which we can have real-time data on the actual location of a parent so that family members can be brought back together.”
There’s a familiar pattern to the administration’s handling of family separation, one that recalls the Muslim ban. First, Trump’s team shocks the country with its callousness, causing chaos and terror. People rise up, and the administration backs down or a court intervenes. But once the storm passes, Trump’s people try again. Eventually, having worn out the country’s capacity to resist, they quietly institute some previously inconceivable new policy.
Just this week, a government lawyer argued in court that migrant children needn’t be given luxuries like soap and toothbrushes. The administration is planning to house migrant children at a military base once used as a Japanese internment camp. On Thursday, The Associated Press reported on a Texas detention facility where about 250 children, some separated from relatives, have been locked up for as many as 27 days “without adequate food, water and sanitation.” Some are babies. At least six migrant children have died in immigration custody since last September.
There are kids in this country being systematically brutalized by the American government, and it’s hard to keep that in the forefront of your mind all the time without going mad.
“I do think there’s some emotional burnout,” Gelernt said. “People just don’t want to hear anymore about another baby who’s sitting in a shelter all by himself without his parents, crying: ‘Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy?’ But we need the kind of public outcry that we had last summer. Otherwise we could be looking at thousands more children separated.”
The question is whether, over the course of this numbing year, we’ve learned to tolerate what just last June seemed intolerable.