Commentary

By Dianne Feinstein

Originially published in The WorldPost.

With each passing day, we’re learning more about the horrors being faced by children separated from their parents at the border. Children being held in cages. A father who committed suicide after being separated from his son and wife. Shelter workers who are unable to comfort or pick up crying children. Parents who are being deported without their children, without knowing if they’ll ever see them again. Children attempting suicide.

These horrors are the direct result of Trump administration policies. Our federal government is intentionally inflicting trauma on children, something that I never thought I would have to say.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that all adults who arrive at the border would be prosecuted for criminal entry, even those seeking asylum who arrive with their children. Because children cannot be held in criminal detention centers, Trump’s zero-tolerance policy means children are taken from their parents when the parents are sent to jail.

This has never before been official U.S. policy. Furthermore, prosecuting individuals seeking asylum likely violates both domestic law and international treaty obligations. In the past, families have been kept together in family shelters or released to sponsors under the Flores Agreement and Trafficking Victims Protection Act until their day in court. Those seeking asylum were allowed to file their claim.

Trump’s abrupt changes to this policy have had immediate effects on families. The rate of children being separated from their parents at the border has increased more than twentyfold. Between October 2016 and February 2018, nearly 1,800 children were separated from their parents, an average of just a few each day. New numbers from the Department of Homeland Security show that under the new Trump policy, 2,342 children were taken from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9. That’s nearly 70 children ripped away from their loved ones each day.

In the face of public outcry, the president and administration officials have repeatedly made false statements about their policy and sought to obfuscate its effects. They claimed it’s required by law, which is false. They blamed their choice on Democrats, which is false. They said that young children separated from their parents are well taken care of, which audio and video recordings clearly show is false.

There’s no law requiring the separation of families. Trump could end this immoral policy today.

Separating young children from their parents causes extreme trauma. The American Academy of Pediatrics has described the policy as “child abuse” and detailed how trauma can have profound effects on children’s brains and their emotional development. Additionally, Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters built for unaccompanied minors are not equipped with facilities or staff to care for the very young children who have been separated from their parents.

If the president won’t act to end this immoral policy, Congress must.

All 49 Democratic senators support our straightforward bill, the Keep Families Together Act, to bar family separation. The bill prohibits separation except in the cases of trafficking or abuse. It requires a child welfare specialist to be involved in decisions to separate families to ensure the best interests of the child are followed. And it requires the Department of Homeland Security to establish a clear process, in the parents’ native language, to reunite them with their children after separation occurs. Media reports have made clear that there’s no such process in place today.

Many Republicans say they oppose children being taken from their parents, but so far none have joined our bill. This humanitarian crisis necessitates action, not just words. While our bill is a narrow fix, we must also do more to address the root causes that lead many Central Americans to leave their countries and seek asylum.

People are fleeing horrific conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which are among the most violent countries in the world. Trafficking of women and girls is rampant. Law enforcement is unequipped and unwilling to take action to combat sexual assault and domestic violence. Gangs target citizens for extortion, and security services often fail to protect the innocent.

Immigrants seeking to escape these conditions are desperate, and if we don’t help make their countries safer, no policy will prevent them from coming here. Many view the choice to remain in their country or flee as a choice between life and death. We can start by helping Central American countries to stabilize living conditions. At the very least, the State Department should become more active with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to help improve their governance and address internal conflicts that lead so many children and families to flee their homes.

America is better than this. We must not be a country that chooses to traumatize young children.

Dianne Feinstein is the senior U.S. senator from California.