The situation at the border is chaotic and heartbreaking. Immigration experts say it was easily preventable.
Over 3,000 immigrant children remain separated from their parents, about 100 of whom are under the age of 5, Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said on Thursday. That is 700 more than administration officials previously estimated.
Now, the Trump administration is scrambling to unite the families by its court-appointed deadline of July 26 (the deadline for children under 5 was Tuesday). But on Thursday night, it asked for an extension, claiming that the deadline puts it at risk of violating its "statutory obligations to ensure the safety of children before transferring them out of HHS custody," according to Talking Points Memo.
The administration says it doesn't have enough time to conduct DNA testing to verify parent-child relationships — a practice many immigration advocates have opposed, saying it could give the government the ability to track immigrants indefinitely — and conduct criminal background checks. To add to the challenges, Homeland Security officials told the New York Times that some records linking families together have disappeared or been destroyed.
The government has also asked the court to leave out parents who have already been deported from the reunification requirements, pointing to "the complexities involved in locating individuals who have been removed, determining whether they wish to be reunified with their child, and facilitating such a reunification outside of the United States." While officials are being predictably opaque about how many parents have been deported while their kids are detained in the U.S., Syracuse University's analysis of federal data suggests the number is over 200.
This administration can do things quickly if it wants to. It's the United States government. They can move mountains if they want.
Madhuri Grewal, ACLU lawyer
After he initially blamed family separations on Democrats, Trump signed an executive order on June 20 that would, in theory, reunite the families. A June 26 court order by a federal judge imposed a deadline on these efforts. But the executive order opened a potentially bigger can of worms, since families will still be indefinitely detained in immigration facilities, even when they're together.
"It's presenting a false choice," Madhuri Grewal, an immigration lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Refinery29. "If you don't want to separate a family, we have to jail them. They are calling for mass expansions of family jails. This administration is setting up the narrative quite nicely for its base by saying they have no other choice. But they do."
It's an issue many in the public still fail to understand. Grewal spelled it out: The Trump administration started the zero-tolerance policy, through which it is choosing to criminally prosecute migrants. That is leading to the family separations, since the adults are being sent to jail while the children are in migrant detention centers, many of them traumatized as they wonder when, or if, they're going to see their parents again. Neither the Obama nor the Bush administrations separated families at the border.
There are, of course, more humane ways to handle people coming over the border. One of them, said Grewal, would be the Family Case Management Program, which ICE shut down in 2017 amid budget cuts. Through that, families seeking asylum could find legal resources and social services so they could remain in the community. Instead of building prison-like detention centers and expanding its detainment to military bases and the like, the administration could focus its money and power on programs like this one.
The program, notes Grewal, was not perfect, as it was run by a private prison corporation. But it had a 99% success rate. There's nothing that stops the administration from supporting, or Congress from funding, a similar program that is run by nonprofit organizations, she said. "There are so many community organizations that would love to do that because they would love to help. We need a government that is willing to fund these sorts of programs and work with these community organizations."
She added: "I think the number-one conclusion to make here is: This administration can do things quickly if it wants to. It's the United States government. They can move mountains if they want."
To the distress of thousands, it refuses to do that.