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Zero Tolerance for Family Separation

By: Oliver Clarke When you have a system that allows for children such as 1-year-old infant Johan to appear unrepresented ...


By: Oliver Clarke

When you have a system that allows for children such as 1-year-old infant Johan to appear unrepresented in court, without his parents… Something is wrong. Judges are embarrassed to ask these children, who sometimes hold up fingers to answer how old they are, whether they understand the charges being held against them. Nonetheless, they proceed with the cases, no parents in sight.

A 1997 court order forbade detaining immigrant children for more than 20 days at a time, so in order to hold the parents for longer, ICE has been systematically separating children from their families at the border. President Trump has since overruled this with an executive order that would allow families to be detained together indefinitely.

Separating children and institutionalizing them is bound to have traumatic effects on their long-term mental and physical health, a number of medical organizations warn. The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners explains, “[t]raumatic life experiences in childhood, especially those that involve loss of a caregiver or parent, cause lifelong risk for cardiovascular and mental health disease.” Additionally, the “impersonal, unstable and fragmented care” associated with institutional settings “not only impacts on attachment or stress regulation but also on physical growth parameters such as height, weight, and head circumference, and brain development,” writes Dr. Marinus van IJzendoorn, a professor of human development at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Not only do these children’s experiences with separation frequently result in a type of PTSD, but most of the children will have accumulated traumas from what they were fleeing from in the first place and gained more in their long journey across the US Border.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, between early May and June 19th, 2,342 children were separated from their parents. Reunification has been slow and fraught with trouble, as parents and children may be detained across the country from each other, and it is exceedingly difficult for parents to get in touch with their children due to bureaucratic red tape. The US government is using DNA testing to verify child-parent relationships, which is quicker, but more expensive than the traditional method of collecting birth certificates and other related documents.

The United Nations has condemned this practice of family separation as a gross violation of the rights of children. However, seeing as the US is the only country in the world that never ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Trump administration recently withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council altogether, the impact of this condemnation may not be as strong as hoped. The American people have expressed their outrage as well, as protesters gathered in major cities across the country around July 4th in “Families Belong Together” marches, resulting in 575 arrests of protesters in the capital alone. Other protests have been organized at ICE detention facilities and against the US Customs & Border Patrol for their direct actions in separating families and violations of human rights.