On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was implementing a “zero-tolerance” policy toward people caught entering the United States illegally. Adults who crossed the border anywhere but at an official port of entry would be referred by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials for criminal prosecution, whether or not they were seeking asylum or traveling with children. In the past, immigration officials generally tried to detain families together if a parent was charged with illegal entry, but no longer: the new policy would separate parents from their children just as they arrived in a strange land.
The cruelty of such a policy has become distressingly plain. According to figures from the DHS obtained by the Associated Press, nearly two thousand children were separated from their mothers and fathers during a six-week period from mid-April to the end of May. “Little kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and they’re being hauled off,” Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney, told the Washington Post. “It’s as bad as anything I’ve seen in twenty-five-plus years of doing this work.” Audio acquired by ProPublica captures the cries of children as they’re taken from parents while a border agent makes a joke. One woman has claimed that her daughter was torn from her arms while she was breastfeeding her, though government officials deny this charge.
Once separated, the children are sent to detention centers overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, and the images and accounts that have emerged from these facilities shock the conscience. Youngsters are housed in cage-like pens, twenty to an enclosure, toddlers together with adolescents. They sleep under Mylar blankets amid a litter of plastic water bottles and empty bags of chips. Lights remain on around the clock.
The trauma of such experiences, which can fairly be called child abuse, is likely to stay with these children for the rest of their lives. After visiting a detention center, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Colleen Kraft, said children there could suffer irreparable harm. And as of now, the administration is said to have no long-term plan for what to do with the children in detention, or even a mechanism for accurately tracking them so they can be reunited with their parents. There has even been talk of setting up tent cities to house them.