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It started early in the Trump administration and, at first, it appeared that harming children to achieve policy goals was just an idea that would never be implemented. However, a leaked administration memo and a review of multiple policies and actions by the Trump administration in the last two years shows that inflicting harm on children was either central to a policy goal, collateral damage that the Trump administration felt was worth the underlying policy goal, or given very little attention to mitigate the harm that would clearly result from various policies.
Family Separation: On March 7, 2017, then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly admitted on CNN that deterrence was more important to him than the harm his department would inflict on children through forced family separation. Never mind all the lasting medical and psychological harm that would be caused by such a policy. Although Secretary Kelly told senators later that month that he would back off, a family separation program was quietly conducted in the El Paso sector July through November 2017 and many cases of family separation were reported by advocates and the media by the fall and winter of 2017. By the spring of 2018, the Trump administration implemented a systematic family separation program across the southern border. Almost 3,000 children were identified as separated through that program, but thousands more have yet to be identified.
In addition to the harm of the separation itself, we continue to hear more about the harm caused by such a policy. In over 200 sworn statements, parents and children held by DHS described being thrown into “dog cages” and “ice boxes” with highly unsanitary conditions where guards kicked and taunted children, guards inhumanely separated and dehumanized parents and children who were forced to sleep on concrete floors in over-crowded, cold cells, where adults and children used toilets in front of dozens of strangers in the middle of cells, where food and water was often limited, even for young children, and where there was limited to no access to phones. One detained mother said of her nine-year-old son, “He wonders when we will get to the United States. I do not tell him that we are already here. He wouldn’t believe that the United States would treat us this way.”
Reports by the Inspectors General of the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, as well as the General Accountability Office, have also shown reckless disregard for basic preparation to mitigate the serious harm to children and families, including failure to to track family units, failure to plan for reunification, failure to prepare for reunification before deportation of parents, failure to plan for mental health care, and the list goes on and on.
Children Left in Vans For Almost Two Days: Just this week, NBC News uncovered emails showing that 37 “tender-age” children between the ages of 5 and 12 waiting to be reunified with parents they were unlawfully separated from last summer, were left in vans for 11 to 39 hours.
Forced Ingestion of Psychotropic Drugs: It doesn’t end with family separation. In July of last year, as a result of serious and credible reports of forced ingestion of psychotropic drugs, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop giving such drugs to migrant children in federal custody without first seeking parental consent.
Failure to Conduct Appropriate Staff Background Checks & Provide Adequate Mental Health Care: The Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General found that an HHS contracted tent facility for migrant children in a desert town, Tornillo, Texas, had employed staff without appropriate background checks and did not have sufficient clinicians for adequate mental health care.
Unnecessarily Long Periods of Federal Custody: Although the number of unaccompanied minor children crossing the border was lower in fiscal year 2016 than in 2018, the number of children and the time spent in federal custody has ballooned due to new, ineffective and irrational policies under the Trump administration. While children in fiscal year 2016 stayed in detention for an average of 35 days, by fiscal year 2018 the average length of stay in detention almost doubled to 59 days as a result of these new policies. All this in spite of clear warnings by pediatricians and psychologists that confining children is inherently harmful to children.
Cutting Off Recreation, English Classes, and Legal Services for Kids: Due to unnecessarily lengthy detention periods for children, the agency charged with the care and custody of migrant children says it is about to run out of money. Instead of addressing failed Trump administration immigration policy or tapping “emergency” funds the President is unconstitutionally taking for his border wall, the Trump administration has chosen to cut off recreation, English classes, and legal services for kids.
Lengthy and Unlawful Periods of Inappropriate Border Detention: At the border, recent reports suggest that a significant number of children remain in detention facilities inappropriate for children longer than the legally allowable 72 hours.
Confiscating Critical Medicine for Children: Reports show that border officials are confiscating critically-needed drugs from children they encounter.
Confiscating and Discarding Personal Belongings: A recent report by the DHS Inspector General explained that personal belongings are being confiscated and discarded in dumpsters. A picture of discarded belongings included a kid’s doll.
Causing Families to Choose Homelessness or Family Separation: A proposed rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development would bar thousands of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident children from housing assistance simply because they live with an undocumented family member. This will lead to families having to choose between family separation or homelessness.
Full Steam Ahead on Even Weaker Standards of Care and Protection: In the midst of all this harm inflicted on children, the Trump administration, supported by key Republicans, is charging full steam ahead in attempting to end what little protection there is for children in federal custody, including critical standards of care in detention and limits on time children may spend in detention.
Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said: “If you thought that harming children was central only to one Trump administration policy – family separation – it is clear now that inflicting harm on children is either acceptable collateral damage to this administration or, at worst, necessary to achieve a dubious policy objective. Even if you gave the administration the benefit of the doubt, the record shows that the administration has taken little time to mitigate clearly predictable harm to children in the development and implementation of Trump policies.
“And if the ultimate goal is decreasing the number of families seeking asylum at the border, then the Trump administration has clearly failed and all this harm to children they might have thought was cruelly and immorally ‘worth it,’ was actually for naught. This administration inherited the lowest number of border apprehensions in 46 years and after two years of cruel and failed policies by this administration, those numbers are spiking.”