The Slatest

Outrage Grows as Horror of Policy to Split Children and Parents at Border Becomes Clear

A Mexican child looks at a vehicle of the US border patrol through the US-Mexico fence in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on April 4, 2018.
A Mexican child looks at a vehicle of the US border patrol through the US-Mexico fence in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on April 4, 2018.
HERIKA MARTINEZ/Getty Images

As the heart-wrenching stories of babies snatched from their parents’ hands at the border start to be told, the outrage is growing. “There is something terrible happening here that Americans would not support if they understood it,” F. Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, told NBC News earlier this week. It seems Americans are finally starting to wake up to the reality of what is happening in their country and outrage over the practice is growing now that is becoming more commonplace thanks to new policies being implemented by the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to criminally prosecute “100 percent” of migrants illegally crossing the border with Mexico. That essentially meant it suddenly became official U.S. policy to separate children from their parents whereas before families would usually be kept together in shelters while they underwent asylum or deportation proceedings. But when he announced his new policy Sessions outright said the separation of children and their parents would be inevitable and brushed off concerns by saying that it would send a clear message to potential migrants. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” In other words, the government made it clear it was willing to traumatize children for life just to teach a lesson to their parents. Chief of Staff John Kelly seemed to put into words the administration’s lack of interest on the fate of the children split from their parents in an interview with NPR: “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

All this talk about more children being snatched from parents’ arms at the border suddenly brought to attention a little known fact that received scant little notice when it was first revealed last month: federal officials are losing track of lots of migrant children. And in this case losing track is a polite way of saying they have absolutely no clue where they could be. Turns out that children are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and seems woefully unprepared to deal with the inflow.

Between October 2016 and December 2017, the agency was unable to determine the exact location fo 1,475 of the 7,633 minors it attempted to reach—or almost 20 percent, Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for the HHS’ administration for children and families, said at a Senate subcommittee testimony in April. As Vox’s Dara Lind made clear in a series of tweets, there seemed to be a bit of confusion among online commenters about what this number represents because most of the children included in this “misplaced” count arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors and were not actually snatched from their parents.

This is hardly a new problem. In a scathing 2016 report, a Senate committee even accused the agency of failing to protect minors from potential traffickers and other abusers. Yet by all accounts, things have gotten a lot worse. The reason why these past experiences are important is because the agency is “failing at its TRADITIONAL function, and now being asked to perform a new one,” notes Lind.

Yet even before the new prosecution strategy went into effect, experts on border issues said children were still being separated from their parents at alarming rates. From October 2017 to mid-April, more than 700 children were reportedly separated from their parents, according to NBC News.

NBC’s Chris Hayes covered the issue in a devastating report Friday that details lots of horrifying events, including a time when a 53-week-old infant was snatched from his parents. “This is unprecedented, the worst thing I’ve seen in 25 plus years of doing civil rights work,” said an ACLU lawyer. “We may be doing permanent trauma to these kids.” On Twitter Hayes shared pages of a court document about a Honduran national whose 18-month-old son was taken away from her at the border and was given no guidance as to when she’d be able to reunite with him. “This is a moral abomination, and a national shame,” Hayes wrote.

It is also hardly a unique case. The Houston Chronicle wrote about a 28-year-old Guatemalan who tried to cross the border illegally with his 18-month-old son. When he was deported three months later no one could tell him where his son was beyond saying he was “somewhere in Texas.” “I cried. I begged,” he said. “No one could tell me anything.”

“What is more shameful than forcibly separating, in America, parents from infant children at the border?” asked former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. “And then, losing track of those children?” Rep. Ted Lieu of California wrote on Twitter that the policy of splitting children from their parents “would shock Jesus” and is “evil.”

As outrage grew on Saturday, Trump somehow seemed to think he could blame Democrats for the mess his administration has created. “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS,” Trump wrote on Twitter.