Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Family Separation

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Since taking office, President Donald Trump has issued a number of sweeping changes to the US immigration policy. Perhaps the most controversial is the “zero-tolerance” policy, which aimed to deter immigrant families – especially those seeking asylum – by prosecuting all undocumented immigrants which led to the separation of immigrant families throughout May and June. While the policy has been revoked by Trump, many children are still separated and detained.

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy on May 7, more than 2,300 children were separated from their families by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In many cases, parents are separated from their children after entering into the United States. The children are then temporarily detained by the DHS before being transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), where they are detained for an extended period of time in facilities throughout the US. While the DHS does not have an official policy to separate families, the agency has always been required to “protect all minors in… custody” if the legal guardian is being criminally prosecuted; the number of prosecutions – and thus family separations – have skyrocketed as a direct result of zero-tolerance.

Due to overwhelming political, public, and international pressure, Trump suspended family separation through an executive order a month later on June 20, stating: “It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.” Moreover, the order also notes that, “It is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.” This executive order was accompanied by Trump calling upon Congress to “fix the situation”.

Although the act of separating families was repealed, there was no federal solution for the children already detained in the US. Both political parties refused to cooperate with Trump and each other in Congress. The Republicans – already exasperated at Trump’s indecisiveness – took insult to Trump’s insistence that Congress was responsible for solving the problem. Meanwhile, the Democrats were unwilling to budge without tackling other immigration issues such as DREAM. As a result of Congress’s inability to act in a swift and decisive manner, there was no formal reunification process in place for reuniting children with their families. Over the next month, the ORR worked with the US Health and Human Services (HHS) to perform DNA testing to expedite identification of children and connect them with their parents. The process was fraught with obstacles as families were separated with no contingency plan to reunite them. Children were classified as an unaccompanied alien minor while parents were charged with misdemeanors. As a result, parents and children were split into two different legal processes; parents are criminally prosecuted in court and children are placed in government custody or foster care. Furthermore, some parents were deported and sent back to their home country while others were released or still detained, making it difficult to find and contact parents. It was not until mid-August that a plan, which delineated plans to contact parents and determine their intentions for their children, and to transport children to their country of origin, was finally approved by a federal judge.

Zero-tolerance and the crisis that ensued has brought the issue of immigration and value of family into the spotlight of public discourse. Yet, 3 months after the termination of zero-tolerance, nearly 500 children are still separated from their families. People are still wondering whether the children will be reunited with their parents, and how zero-tolerance has and will affect US politics. It is clear, however, that throughout 2018, the Trump administration has faced setbacks when enacting large scale immigration reform, a trend that will not end anytime soon.

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