The Malevolence and Incompetence of the Family Separation Policy

Less than a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, I wrote that we were witnessing the combination of malevolence and incompetence.

Electing a bully to be president who is this uninformed and incompetent is one thing. But from all indications it looks like Trump has surrounded himself with people who have nefarious motives, are equally uninformed, and have a stunning lack of experience. This will not end well.

I thought about that when I watched DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s performance at a press briefing yesterday. Before taking a look at what she said, here’s a reminder about her background prior holding this position:

Many senior staffers at DHS were stunned when Nielsen was appointed to lead the department. She had never led a large organization, let alone one as unwieldy as DHS.

Nielsen, 46, worked as a DHS staffer and adviser under George W. Bush, then spent the Obama years remaking herself as a cyber­security expert. Her high-level management experience was thin.

When Trump was elected in 2016, Nielsen was running Sunesis Consulting, a firm whose online profile listed her as its lone employee. The company’s business address was a condo in Alexandria. The firm’s phone number, still visible online, is Nielsen’s personal cellphone.

Now let’s take a look at one of the topics Nielsen addressed yesterday.

Here are two of the claims she made:

  1. parents can communicate with their children via phone and video conferencing, and
  2. a parent who is released from custody can ask for the child to be released back into their care

That is completely at odds with reporting that is coming from these detention centers. Keep in mind that DHS is the department that is responsible for adult detention centers, while the Department of Health and Human Services runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of the children. Jonathan Blitzer writes that “There’s next to no coördination between D.H.S. and H.H.S.”

Blitzer goes on to explain that many of these parents don’t know where their children are, much less how to arrange a phone call with them. On the statement about children being released back to their parents, Adolfo Flores reports:

HHS was unable to provide any specific instance of a child being reunited with a parent who’d completed their sentence under the zero-tolerance policy or to provide general numbers on such reunions.

Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who is the lead lawyer suing the Trump administration for separating immigrant parents from their children, said immigration authorities are not reuniting children and parents even after the parents have served their time, which is usually two to three days.

“Kids are just languishing for months in foster families or government facilities,” Gelernt told BuzzFeed News. “If the government is saying there is some process for reuniting them promptly, we haven’t seen it.”

But as Blitzer writes, it’s even worse than that.

No protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently, for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them…

Erik Hanshew, a federal public defender in El Paso, told me that the problems begin at the moment of arrest. “Our client gets arrested with his or her child out in the field. Sometimes they go together at the initial processing, sometimes they get separated right then and there for separate processing,” he said. “When we ask the Border Patrol agents at detention hearings a few days after physical arrest about the information they’ve obtained in their investigation, they tell us that the only thing they know is that the person arrested was with a kid. They don’t seem to know gender, age, or name.”

The picture this presents mirrors the way the travel ban was initially implemented: a malevolent plan rolled out with a complete lack of communication and planning. It might be that Secretary Nielsen, who obviously supports separating children from their parents, intends for the statements she made in that video to be true. But she has obviously done nothing to assure that her intentions are being carried out.

In other words, this story only begins with family separation. For the 2,000+ children who have been affected so far, there is no plan in place for keeping them in contact with their parents and, even worse, no plan for how they will eventually be reunited. That is the horror story that is unfolding as a result of this administration’s malevolence combined with incompetence.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.