Separating children from their asylum-seeking families is bad policy

In the last few days, we’ve heard heart-rending stories of young children being ripped from their asylum-seeking parents’ arms and sent into shelters and fostercare facilities across the country.

“From May 6, when this started, until May 19, our records show that 658 children with 638 adults have been in the prosecution process,” stated a Department of Homeland Security official at a Judiciary subcommittee hearing last month.

In other words, in a two-week period in May, about 50 children a day were taken away from their families and placed into a nightmare. After his 3-year-old was forcibly wrested from his arms, the Washington Post reported how 39-year-old Marco Antonio Munoz lost his mind and shortly after committed suicide.

Nothing, nothing can warrant this kind of cruelty. And it’s not only attaching inhumanity to parents who arrive at America’s borders looking for refuge, but also, horrifyingly, to children who have become pawns in this game of immigration chess.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in response to the criticism of his zero-tolerance policy — which allows him to criminalize migrant parents who cross the border illegally and send them to jail, while snatching their “unaccompanied alien children” from them — said defensively, “If you’re smuggling a child, we’re going to prosecute you, and then that child will be separated from you, probably as required by law.”

He went on to say that “it’s not our fault.”

Why is the word “probably” placed so judiciously, and what law are we talking about, Mr. Sessions?

One of the most disturbing accounts was from Lauren Dasse, executive director of the Florence Project, an organization aiding detained immigrants in Arizona, who met a 6-year-old blind boy taken away from his mother.

“All he did was beg for his mother. If we cannot represent him, he will stand in front of a judge and represent himself, since there is no public defender system in immigration court, even for children.”

Dasse is right regarding representation in immigration court. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Jan. 29, 2018 that the Constitution did not require the government to provide a lawyer for immigrant children who entered the country illegally.

The ruling was made in the case of C. J., a 15-year-old Honduran boy who was denied a stay of deportation. “It appears to be the first case ever to hold that children can represent themselves in court when important legal rights are at stake,” stated Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“The notion that children are somehow capable of defending their rights in court defies basic common sense,” remarked Arulanantham.

This ruling, as Dasse said, could potentially put a blind 6-year-old child in the position of representing himself in a courtroom if he doesn’t find a pro-bono lawyer to take on his case.

Last week, I walked into a courtroom at the San Francisco Immigration Court at 100 Montgomery St. just in time to hear Judge Ila C. Deiss ask the people seated in her courtroom if there was anybody present without legal representation. A dozen people stood up, and Judge Deiss urged them to seek help in an adjoining room marked with a pro-bono legal help sign.

I watched Judge Deiss address one case after another efficiently, briskly. One of the cases that day was of a young mother and her son, who looked to be around 2 years old. They were one of the luckier ones. They had a lawyer. The child played with different colored markers placed in a basket in front of him as his case was being discussed. The boy’s deportation case was being dealt with separately from his mother’s.

“If he’s a derivative of his mother’s, he doesn’t have his own asylum case,” the judge declared, and so it was decided that the mother and son’s cases would be consolidated. A future date was set for the two of them to reappear, and the judge moved on to the next case.

The numbers are growing rapidly.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were over 40,000 illegal migrant apprehensions along the southwest border in May 2018 alone, out of which, 6,405 were unaccompanied alien minors (UAM).

Once taken into custody, these children are handed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and placed in shelters until a relative or guardian sponsor is found for them. If no sponsor is found, the child goes into the ORR’s foster care system. ORR reports that from October 2017 to April 2017, 19,658 unaccompanied minors were put in deportation proceedings and released to sponsors in the United States, and that includes 118 minors released to sponsors in San Francisco county.

This is going to put an additional strain on our already swamped immigration courts. By the end of May 2018, the number of immigration cases awaiting a decision reached an all-time high of 714,067 in the United States. San Francisco had a staggering 51,967 pending cases, as of the end of May, the third-highest in the country.

If this family separation policy continues, the enduring horror story in America will become the story of these children deprived of parents.

The policy is ill-conceived and barbaric, and leaves me with this question: If the children taken from their parents are to be deported anyway, why separate them from their parents and strain our legal, economic and child-care systems? If the children are not deported, how will it ever stop deported parents from coming back again and again to find their kids?

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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