The US House Must Start Protecting Undocumented Minors
The 2018 midterm election should be considered less of a “blue wave” and more of a call to action made by the people of the United States to their House Representatives. The Trump administration has made many an egregious decision since 2017 and the Democrats of both the House and the Senate have unable to block such decisions due to their minority status. The Democrats must use their majority status in the House to actively combat the Trump administrations treatment of Latin American and other undocumented minors in detention.
Beginning in April 2018, Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy led to the separation of infants from their mother’s arms, children from their father’s reach, and siblings from their brother’s or sister’s hands. Family separation shocked the conscience of the nation and the outcry against the policy’s ramifications drove President Trump to sign an executive order “ending” family separation. Thousands of children remained in detention, separated from their parents, for months after the executive order. In June 2018, a U.S. District Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction against the government, requiring that children be returned to their parents within 30 days. Come late October, the Department of Homeland Security still had hundreds of separated children in its custody. The government’s failure to comply with the injunction filled public discourse with calls to act to free the children. Some of the parents of these children who have been deported to the countries they fled have made the soul-churning decision to leave their children in the United States because returning the children to their country of origin could mean death. Despite the alleged “end” of the family separation policy, 81 children have been separated from their families since President Trump’s executive order.
Another source of turmoil within the United States’ immigration system is the lack of representation for these children. Children, who do not speak English and are as young as 3 years old, are representing themselves against the U.S. government in immigration courts. They are being led to make decisions that are not in their best interest. For example, a 5 year old girl named Helen was told to sign her name on a form that waived away her rights to a Flores bond hearing, which would have guaranteed her a hearing in front of an immigration judge in far less time than she spent at a shelter, separated from her family. While organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, private firms, and law school institutions are providing legal services to help bring families back together, the number of children essentially being forced to represent themselves is too high.
The psychological toll on the detained children who were reunited with their families is immeasurable. There have been documented cases of young children, unable to understand why their parents suddenly disappeared from their lives, rejecting or distrusting their parents upon reunification. Other children live in fear of being taken again and anxiously cling to their parents. In December 2018, the nation took notice of the deaths of two undocumented children, one a 7 year old girl and the other an 8 year old boy, both from Guatemala, who died from medical complications while in Border Patrol custody.
More and more questions are being raised in Congress about how to address the turmoil of the Trump administration’s immigration landscape. Despite increased attention on this humanitarian crisis at the border, the problem has gotten worse over the past few months. In fact, Boston University Law Professor Sarah Sherman-Stokes reports that a team of BU Law professors and students spent a week at the border in March. They used sharpie markers to write parents’ contact information on their children in case they were separated. Despite this, the Trump White House seems to be now moving toward an even harder line toward migrants; complete with a purge of Homeland Security leadership.
At this point, there should be no compromise by Democrats regarding the treatment of undocumented children and their families. Now that Democrats have a deciding vote in the House, they must use that vote, the voice their constituents gave them–and especially their oversight powers–to protect the voiceless and vulnerable children in DHS custody.
This may be finally happening. On April 17th, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, invited the architect of Trump’s immigration policy Stephen Miller to appear before the Committee:
“I am offering you an opportunity to make your case to the Committee and the American people about why you — and presumably President Trump — believe it is good policy for the Trump Administration to take the actions it has, including intentionally separating immigrant children from their parents at the border to deter them from coming to the United States, transferring asylum seekers to sanctuary cities as a form of illegal retribution against your political adversaries, and firing top Administration officials who refuse orders to violate the law.”
Miller is scheduled to appear before the Oversight Committee on May 1.
The safety of children should not be a partisan issue, but if anyone is going to act to ensure the safety of immigrant children, it should be the newly elected House of Representatives. The House should pressure the Senate and President to abide by the United Nation’s guidelines on the humane treatment of migrant children and their families and enforce their implementation. Any derogation leaves room for more horrifying tales of assault, abuse, trauma, and deaths of innocent children who were only trying to avoid such fates in their homelands. The House should also legislate to protect the Flores rights of unaccompanied minors and require that these minors be provided with representation in front of immigration courts.
The international community has condemned President Trump’s treatment of migrants, documented and undocumented, asylum-seeking and non-asylum-seeking, on several occasions, but some of the loudest condemnations fall upon the separation of families and treatment of children. Some governments and organizations have gone so far to call the family separation policy a humanitarian crisis and illegal. Let this moment in our nation’s history not go down as a complete humanitarian failure but as a showing of what the people can do to try and rectify the mistakes made by discriminatory policymaking.
Cassandra Castro will graduate from Boston University School of Law in 2020.