This July 4th—a day to celebrate a nation with a rich immigrant history—brought a new and disturbing twist to the attacks on immigrant families by the Trump administration. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now targeting parents whose children have fled to the U.S. from violence and persecution abroad (so-called “unaccompanied minors”), with the intention of deporting the parents and potentially prosecuting them for trafficking or endangering children. The administration’s policy is to criminalize parents if they have paid a smuggler to bring children to safety in this country, a policy change that threatens American values and the legal framework for protecting children.
These threats to parents are personal for me. During my mother’s teenage years in the 1930s, as her family fled persecution in Germany, my grandparents first sent her to relatives in France and later to England while they stayed in Czechoslovakia until it was invaded. Were they acting to endanger or “traffic” her? Of course not. They were acting out of love to keep their child as safe as possible in a world that had become deadly, just like today’s parents of unaccompanied minors fleeing from danger in their home countries. In fact, the majority of unaccompanied children seeking protections in the United States today are coming from the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a region where violence, poverty, and instability have skyrocketed in recent years.
A little history helps explain how we got here. Prior to 2012, approximately 6,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied children came to this country annually, some fleeing persecution and others seeking a better life or reunification with family. In these earlier years, policies evolved through reforms including bipartisan legislative improvements to give increased priority to the best interests of vulnerable children. These improvements include the requirement that children should be held in the least restrictive setting possible, with preference given to placement in homes with family. As a result, minors are now transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours of arrival and placed with sponsors—often parents or relatives—or into ORR-funded facilities.
But in 2014, following an influx of more than 68,000 unaccompanied children, the capacity of the federal government to adequately meet the needs of these children was challenged, threatening their well-being and safety. Rather than recognize this as a humanitarian crisis—and despite research determining that more than two-thirds of the children were valid asylum-seekers—the Obama administration attempted to deter entry of children through a range of misguided enforcement strategies, such as speeding up hearings, massively expanding the use of family detention centers to hold asylum-seeking mothers and children, and immigration executive orders that made recent border crossers a priority for deportation, resulting in raids targeting hundreds of families and unaccompanied children. Despite some improvements in the final year of the Obama administration, DHS never reversed this damaging trend toward enforcement and away from the best interests of the child that had been prompted by the humanitarian crisis.
Today, President Trump’s immigration executive orders are driving back progress even further. Rather than follow a process allowing children to live with their families while their legal case is considered, DHS proposes to exploit children’s disclosure of their parents’ information to raid, deport, and prosecute them. DHS locates the parents by “using children as bait,” in the words of one federal civil servant: when children provide their parents’ addresses after crossing the border, DHS uses that information to stage a raid. In other cases, parents may be detained when picking up their children from government custody.
The likely damage goes far beyond just the unaccompanied children themselves, since these parents are often caring for other children, including U.S.-born citizen siblings who will also be left without a home if their parents are deported. Given what we know about the importance of stable family settings in children’s development, learning, education, and well-being, this approach is deeply damaging and costly—and may in the end be ruled illegal, given the history of litigation against unnecessarily housing children for lengthy periods in institutionalized care.
But even beyond the direct damage to tens of thousands of children and parents, it is morally untenable to target parents for deportation and prosecution because they have been forced to make an impossible, desperate decision to save their children’s lives. At a time when the plight of child refugees—like the toddler who drowned as his family sought to escape from Syria—blares from news headlines around the world, many countries are divided about how to address their responsibilities to these smallest victims of violence and tragedy. But the idea of treating a refugee crisis as the fault of parents crosses a line of morality and decency.
Beyond my family’s own experience, this is personal for me because I previously spent years overseeing the District of Columbia’s child welfare system, with its mission of protecting children from abuse and neglect. To me, destroying trust in the nation’s child protection framework by using it to terrorize parents who meet none of the usual markers of child maltreatment imperils children who really are in danger of abuse and neglect. Such misuse of the law places more children in danger and risks undercutting community trust in child protection laws and agencies.
What should we be doing instead? It’s not complicated: the research provides clear, common-sense guidelines about how to protect children fleeing violence. Earlier this year, more than 60 child advocacy organizations signed on to a set of five simple but fundamental principles to guide the development of immigration policies affecting children. The principles recognize that because children are different from adults they warrant special protections, including a guarantee of legal representation—important for all, but essential for children who cannot possibly be expected to represent themselves—and that children, particularly those who have undergone significant trauma, require time to establish trust with adults sufficient to provide information regarding the trauma they’ve undergone (which is crucial to determining whether they qualify for asylum). The principles also affirm the importance of keeping children with their families whenever possible. Rather than committing to the misguided and dangerous strategy of blaming parents and destabilizing families, the United States should build on hard-earned progress made over the past few decades and adopt a model to protect unaccompanied children—not do them more harm.