A month after President Donald Trump reversed his abhorrent policy of forcibly separating migrant families at the border, its consequences continue – harming the mental health of children and parents, impeding migrants’ legal options, and undermining their legitimate right to seek asylum.
Parents are being asked to make decisions under unimaginable circumstances. “The officials told me I would have to do an [asylum] interview in the next few weeks … but right now all I can think about is how my daughter is and when I’ll see her,” Jessyca, from El Salvador, who was separated from her 9-year-old daughter more than a month ago.
Some parents told me immigration officials pressured them to waive their right to claim asylum, falsely promising they’d have their children back sooner. “‘You don’t want to have your son back?’” an immigration official told Edwin, from Honduras, when he said he wanted to see an immigration judge. After the official pressed him repeatedly, Edwin said, he signed where the official pointed.
And as immigration officials shuffle parents and their children from one detention center to another, it increases the risk families won’t get the information and legal support they need to make critical decisions.
This week, ICE agents at a Texas detention center pulled a woman from the interview room next to mine as she was talking to her lawyers about the abuses she suffered in Honduras. They said she could come back after an urgent meeting. They lied; officials later admitted that instead of a meeting, they took her to another detention center without allowing her to finish her conversation with the lawyers or retrieve the documents she’d been showing them.
Federal judges have temporarily blocked the deportation of separated and recently reunited families, including in a nationwide order issued on Monday. Another court order requires the government to present a plan “for addressing the children’s trauma as a result of the Government’s unconstitutional separation of the children from their parents.”
There’s no question that forcibly separating children from their parents has been damaging for everybody in the family, and orders like these are a welcome check on the worst practices we’ve seen over the past few months.
But replacing the family separation policy with family detention, the government’s preferred fallback option, is no better; the government’s own health experts have warned that detaining migrant families poses a “high risk of harm” to children.
The government should fairly assess each individual’s claim to asylum, as required under US and international law. Detained families should be released, using the least restrictive alternatives to detention that will ensure court appearances, and authorities should move swiftly to reunite the thousands of children still separated from their parents. And agents who mislead or coerce detained parents or children should be disciplined.