If you have paid attention to the news with any regularity for the past four years, you are aware that hundreds of thousands of children and families have fled to the United States because of rampant violence and gang activity in Central America. The Central American refugee crisis developed during President Barack Obama’s administration and continues under President Trump’s administration. The two administrations have taken different approaches to address the problem. The Justice Department under President Obama prioritized the deportation of individuals who had committed felonies and were a threat to national security. In January 2017, President Trump, in contrast, issued an executive order which does not include a priority list for deportations, and refers only to “criminal offense,” which is broad enough to encompass felonies and misdemeanors.
In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled out the zero tolerance policy. When families or individuals are apprehended by the Border Patrol, they’re taken into Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody. Under the zero-tolerance policy, DHS officials refer any adult “believed to have committed any crime, including illegal entry,” to the Justice Department for prosecution. If they’re convicted, they’re usually sentenced to time served. The next step would be deportation proceedings.
Illegal entry is a misdemeanor for first-time offenders and a conviction is grounds for deportation. Because of President Trump’s executive order, DHS can deport people for misdemeanors more easily, because the government no longer prioritizes the removal of dangerous criminals, gang members or national-security threats.
This means that the Trump administration is splitting up children from their parents when families get apprehended because children go into a process in which they eventually get placed with sponsors in the country while their parents are prosecuted and potentially deported.
Though President Trump has said that U.S. laws or court rulings are forcing them to separate families that are caught trying to cross the southern border, these contentions are false. No law or court ruling mandates family separations. Immigrant families are being separated primarily because the Trump administration in April 2018 began to prosecute as many border-crossing offenses as possible. The Justice Department can’t prosecute children along with their parents, so the natural result of the zero-tolerance policy has been a sharp rise in family separations. Nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from parents during six weeks in April 2018 and May 2018.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Statement (AAP) issued a statement dated May 18, 2018, concerning the issue of separating children and parents. The statement contains quotes from Colleen Kraft, M.D., M.B.A., FAAP, a pediatrician for over thirty years, who has cared for thousands of children, including children pediatric engagement in school and child care for children with special health care needs:
“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything
we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s
health. In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation,
can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture
and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of
prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress –
can carry lifelong consequences for children.”
Protests took place around the country in an effort to spur the Trump administration to stop separating children from their parents. Republican senators, who have rarely crossed President Trump head-on, worked to defuse the growing crisis. “All of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky, said Tuesday, endorsing a plan to keep parents and children together while their cases are going through the court system. House Democrats, including Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Jimmy Panetta from Monterey, introduced a “Keep Families Together Act” to end family separations at the border.
On June 20, 2018, President Trump, facing enormous political pressure, signed an Executive Order to end the separation of families at the border by detaining parents and children together for an indefinite period.
Did it resolve this serious humanitarian crisis? How does this impact the families who are already separated from their children? Will they be reunited? How? When?
For now, there are more questions than answers. Stay tuned for further developments.