On 6th May, 2018 Trump's administration implemented a zero tolerance policy with regards to immigration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced it in San Diego:
I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you make false statements to an immigration officer or file a fraudulent asylum claim, that’s a felony. If you help others to do so, that’s a felony, too. You’re going to jail. So if you’re going to come to this country, come here legally. Don’t come here illegally."
Although not technically part of the zero tolerance policy, separating children from their parents when they have entered the USA illegally happens because U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents as the children are not charged with a crime, the parents are. The zero tolerance policy to prosecute everyone who enters illegally means that parents are sent to jails run by the US Marshals Services instead of, until recently, being allowed to stay with their children and face deportation proceedings in a civil court.
This separation makes the children unaccompanied alien minors, the same status as if they crossed the border illegally by themselves, so they are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours, who then place them in shelters until they are reunited with the parents from whom they were separated, other family or put into foster care.
Dr Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that this can have a huge detrimental psychological effect on the children.
Such a situation could have long-term, devastating effects on young children, who are likely to develop what is called toxic stress in their brain once separated from caregivers or parents they trusted. It disrupts a child’s brain development and increases the levels of fight-or-flight hormones in their bodies. This kind of emotional trauma could eventually lead to health problems, such as heart disease and substance abuse disorders."
It doesn't help that there is a no contact rule in the centres, so when Dr Kraft saw a distressed, crying two year old no-one was allowed to physically comfort her or calm her down. Dr Kraft is not alone in decrying the effect on the children's mental health. Around 4,600 mental health professionals have signed a petition to the Trump administration to stop the separations.
There is also the effect on the parents. One father separated from his wife and child had a breakdown in a Texan jail and killed himself. Parents are obviously beside themselves when their children are taken away and it is this distress that is used to persuade them to plead, "Culpable" on the promise that they will then be reunited. Juana Francisca Bonilla de Canjura said of her experience:
“Nobody knows anything. Nobody says anything — just lies. They said they were taking them for questioning, and we were only going to be apart for a moment. But they never came back.”
There are reports that children are taken away to shower and never returned to their parents:
A horrifying thought when you think that, according to the Department for Homeland Security, 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults in 6 weeks, 19th April - 31st May. Federal public defenders say that in McAllen, Texas, 415 children were taken from their parents between 21st May and 5th June alone. It is currently thought that 11,432 children are in the care of the HHS - 3,000 more than at the beginning of May. This number includes those travelling with no family members plus those separated from their parents.
This zero tolerance policy has led to the shelters reaching and in some cases exceeding full capacity. For an excellent description of one shelter - Casa Padre, a Walmart supercenter in Brownsville, Texas - read "An Interview With Jacob Soboroff, the Reporter Who Went Inside the Texas Walmart Housing Immigrant Children"
He also did an excellent Twitter thread, the first tweet of which is here:
A summary: 1,500 boys aged 10-17, 5 beds instead of 4 to a dorm, regimented shifts for meals and education, lights out 9pm - 6am, allowed outside for just 2 hours a day and never allowed outside of the shelter. To all intents and purposes, the children are incarcerated.
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley on his visit spoke of "wire-mesh, chain linked cages that are about 30x30 [feet], a lot of young folks put into them." Perhaps like this:
However, these shelters are in fact licensed and certified. They have to meet certain standards of care, however low we might think they are. What is happening next will not.
On 14th June, Trump's administration announced they would be constructing tent camps in the desert around El Paso, Texas. That's right, housing children in tents in the desert. Where, as Democrat Senator for the El Paso area, José Rodríguez, said:
This week we're experiencing 100- to 105-degree weather (38-40 degrees celsius). You are talking about placing children in tents in the desert regions of West Texas?"
Rumours of a camp at Fort Bliss to house around 1,500 children didn't come to pass due to concerns about housing children on military bases. Tornillo, a border town in El Paso, is set to be the first site for the tent cities, to house around 340 children. The tent cities won’t have to be licensed and certified facilities so the thought of what will happen regarding quality of care is hugely concerning.
The United Nations human rights office last week asked the Trump administration to "immediately halt" the separating of children from their parents, saying there is "nothing normal about detaining children." Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in Geneva:
The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child's best interest should always come first. There is nothing normal about detaining children,"
To which Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said:
Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders."
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, has called for an end to the separations:
This is not a zero tolerance policy, this is a zero humanity policy, and we can’t let it go on. Ripping children out of their parents’ arms to inflict harm on the child to influence the parents is unacceptable.”
However, it seems to be an issue that crosses party lines as even Former First Lady Laura Bush, the wife of former Republican President George W Bush wrote yesterday for the Washington Post:
Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso"
Trump is presiding over an administration that is becoming dangerously right wing and autocratic. These latest actions show that he doesn't care about what the rest of the world thinks. He will carry on regardless, with seeming impunity, as other countries and world organisations look on, hand wringing but powerless while he is tearing children away from their parents and incarcerating them in purpose built camps which are, by definition, concentration camps:
Definition of concentration camp
: a camp where persons (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined
You only have to look at history to see where this will end. Appeasement is not an option. If our governments and world organisations won't show zero tolerance for Trump's zero tolerance then we, the people, must shine a spotlight on it at every opportunity and let Trump know that we have zero tolerance for him.