Over Thanksgiving weekend, 60 Minutes aired a searing report on Donald Trump’s family separation policy, which has separated thousands of children from their families and is still ongoing. Entitled “The chaos behind Donald Trump’s policy of family separation at the border”, the segment found that the Administration lied about the aim of the policy and how long the policy was in effect. They also found that the Administration failed to properly reunite children with their families, and highlighted the potential long-term effects on children affected by the policy.
“We take better care of people’s effects when we send them to jail than we took care of the children who we took from their parents,” said Cecilia Munoz, the director of the Domestic Policy Council under the Obama Administration, in the segment. “And that’s because these decisions were clearly made at the top and pushed down to the agencies without thinking through the ramifications and without thinking through the potential harm.”
Described as a “zero-tolerance” policy, the Administration sought to separate asylum-seeking children from their families as a deterrent to future migrants. You can find a timeline of the Administration’s family separation policy here. 60 Minutes reported that at least 5,000 children have been detained by the Trump Administration since his inauguration — poor and inaccurate accounting from the Administration makes the exact number unclear. Official reporting from the White House acknowledges detaining only 2,600 children. Reporting found that many immigrants faced abysmal conditions while they were separated and detained.
The family separation policy was “irresponsible” according to Scott Shuchart, who worked for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Homeland Security and said that the “system that wasn’t prepared on the backend to allow the families to be reconciled later.”
Shuchart said that his department was not sought out for advice and when they tried to provide it, it was ignored. Shuchart’s department advised that the Administration keep the records necessary to make sure that they knew where all the families were at all times, in order to be able to contact and reunite them, but the Administration refused to take this step.
“I can’t believe that we sent Border Patrol agents out to take people’s children from them without training on the appropriate and humane way to do that.” Shuchart, who quit his job over the Administration’s handling of the policy, told 60 Minutes “I had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. We were being asked as a department to do something that violated the civil rights and civil liberties of persons.”
Shuchart was far from alone in his assessment of the Administration’s handling of family separations. The Homeland Security’s Inspector General conducted a special investigation into the department’s handling of the policy and found a chaotic implementation that undermined law enforcement. As the Inspector General’s report said, “instead of patrolling and securing the border, officers had to supervise and take care of children.” The report found parents often did not understand “…their children would be separated” and that they would be “unable to communicate with their children after separation.” Moreover, it found the agency was “not fully prepared” and “struggled to provide accurate, complete, reliable data on family separation.” Most egregiously, incompatible computer systems erased data that connected the separated children with their families.
60 Minutes also interviewed Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued the Administration in court to reunite families. Gelernt said immigration agents told parents, “your child is just going to take a shower, or just going to get some medical treatment,” but instead the parent would not see the child again.
Even after Gelernt convinced the court to order the reunification of the families, the Trump Administration essentially refused to take on the court-mandated responsibility. “When the government realized it lost track of many of the parents, the Trump Administration told the court reuniting the families was the ACLU’s problem,” the segment noted. As Gelernt said, the Administration’s response was basically, “well, if you wanna find the parents, we don’t know where they are. Let the ACLU look for them.”
The Administration’s failure to adequately track the families was made even more tragic because of the psychological toll the separation took on the children.
Psychiatrist Dr. Pam McPherson, who works at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the policy gave her “concerns about the trauma that the children could experience, about the cumulative traumatic stress that could lead children to have delays in developmental milestones, difficulties with their memory or thinking later, difficulties forming relationships and regulating their emotions.”
“When a child looks to their parent for comfort and the parent’s not there, the child quits looking for comfort. Once the child detaches, they can have lifelong difficulties forming relationships,” said McPherson.
McPherson’s concerns appear quite evident in three-year-old Immers, a boy from Honduras who was separated from his parents by the Trump Administration and placed with a foster family in Michigan for 73 days. Video of the Immers’ reunion with his mother shows him recoiling from and trying to escape from her. “It felt like he wasn’t my son anymore. It felt like a nightmare,” said Gladys, Immers’ mother. “And from that day until today,” she said, “it’s been very difficult to deal with him.” For so many families affected by the zero tolerance policy, the trauma of what happened continues.
“We understood that that action would create an imminent threat to the harm and safety of children,” Dr. Scott Allen, an internist who also works for DHS, said of the family separation policy. Allen also described one episode “where children in a mass immunization program were immunized with the wrong dose, an adult dose instead of the child dose, because the providers at the facility weren’t used to working with children.”
Un-redacted government documents have established that the Administration crafted the family separation policy as a deterrent for future migration — and that Kirstjen Nielsen lied to Congress when she told them the opposite. Cecilia Munoz said even before the Trump Administration started separating families, it was clear these sort of deterrents do not work. “If your child was told today by the gangs, ‘your life is at risk unless you start running drugs for us,’” Munoz said, “you’re thinking much more about their safety today and tomorrow than you’re thinking about, ‘what’s going to happen once we get to our destination?’”
The documents obtained by 60 Minutes also revealed that separations began nine months earlier than the Administration had previously acknowledged. The Administration actually experimented with the policy first, beginning with a pilot program in the El Paso area from July to November 2017. Chillingly, according to 60 Minutes, “we don’t know how many children were taken in those five months.”
Watch the 60 Minutes report here: