Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 5, 2018
The running story this year of the fate of migrant children under the Trump administration keeps getting worse.
The Times reported this week that nearly 2,000 unaccompanied children are being taken from their temporary beds around the United States in the middle of the night and bussed to a new tent city in Tornillo, Texas. Over the last year, the numbers of migrant children have increased to about 13,000 — all as the result of tighter immigration enforcement interpreted as harshly as possible by this administration.
As The Times editorialized, “How to best handle the cases of unaccompanied minors has perplexed authorities since the Obama administration. But the current crowding is not a result of some sharp increase in children stealing across the border — the influx is no greater now than it has been for the past two years. Instead, the Trump administration’s own draconian policies are to blame.”
The administration’s immigration plan started with fears about rising numbers of illegal immigrants, and has graduated in various ways to target asylum seekers, legal immigration limits and workplace raids. The administration said at first it was targeting those illegal immigrants with serious felonies on their record — as had been true under the Obama years — but has widened to include a much wide variety of enforcement claims. Just this week, the administration began denying visas to same-sex domestic partners of foreign diplomats and United Nations employees, and requiring those already in the United States to get married by the end of the year or leave the country. And in the Senate, Trump administration officials said that the decades-old court ruling that limits the length of time migrant children to 20 days can be detained hampers the government’s ability to stem illegal immigration, and needs to be amended.
“In the rows of sand-colored tents in Tornillo, Tex., children in groups of 20, separated by gender, sleep lined up in bunks. There is no school: The children are given workbooks that they have no obligation to complete. Access to legal services is limited,” reported Caitlin Dickerson.
The Times editorial argued, “It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that ripping children from their beds in the middle of the night, tearing them from anyone they’ve forged a connection with, and thrusting them into uncertainty could damage them.”
The Department of Homeland Security explains that widespread detention centers were being overcrowded and it was growing more expensive to maintain them. The department also said that too many children were simply leaving those centers because security was not airtight. The department said too many children were disappearing to families who might themselves have entered the country illegally.
Homeland Security has established strict requirements for the relatives and friends who might care for these children while their cases are sorted out. Prospective sponsors are now required to submit fingerprints, and to share their information with federal immigration officers. Because most of them are undocumented immigrants themselves, they have been scared off by these requirements, and dozens have faced arrest.
The Times editorial noted that images of young children who were taken from their parents this summer prompted a widespread public outcry, leading the Trump White House and immigration officials to reverse course. The long-lasting trauma of extended detention, however, is harder to capture on film.
“Proponents of the current system insist that the restrictions on sponsors were put into place for the children’s protection. But it’s hard to see how any of the new policies could possibly do more good than harm,” said The Times.
The tent city in Texas is not being held to any of the rules that group homes or foster care facilities are subject to. And those existing safeguards had already proved inadequate protection against physical abuse, sexual assault and emotional torment.
According to Dickerson’s report, the camp in Tornillo operates like a small, pop-up city, about 35 miles southeast of El Paso on the Mexico border, complete with portable toilets. Air-conditioned tents that vary in size are used for housing, recreation and medical care. Originally opened in June for 30 days with a capacity of 400, it expanded in September to be able to house 3,800, and is now expected to remain open at least through the end of the year.
“Several shelter workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, described what they said has become standard practice for moving the children: In order to avoid escape attempts, the moves are carried out late at night because children will be less likely to try to run away. For the same reason, children are generally given little advance warning that they will be moved.”
In the meantime, a majority of the several hundred young migrant children taken from their parents at the border have been reunited with their parents. But not all of them, and the price for reunification was deportation for most.
It is both heartbreaking to see that imprisoning children has become a signature for U.S. values, and distressing to see that we lack the creativity to find more humane solutions. Children are carrying the burden of bad policy-making at the White House, all based on scapegoating immigrants for partisan political advancement.