Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse renounced the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border during a meeting of immigration advocates, community leaders, and pediatricians at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island on Monday. Both senators have announced their support for the Keep Families Together Act, introduced by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, which seeks to put an end to a practice widely critiqued as irreparably destructive for undocumented families and violently traumatic for undocumented minors.
Border and customs officials forcibly tear children away from their parents as a result of arrests of undocumented immigrants crossing the border; those children are then transported to “sponsors” within the country or detention centers, in many cases thousands of miles away, and within facilities as decrepit as the boarded-up Walmart Texas Senator Jeff Merkley tried (and failed) to enter in Brownsville, Texas on June 3. Trump’s family separation policy was drafted as an attempt to deter a growing number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border since last November, as first reported by the Washington Post. It has since led to a 40 percent surge in deportation arrests, with the Trump administration racing to support an exponential increase in detainees. The White House has sought to fund more than 51,000 additional beds for detention centers, and has started sending more than 1,600 undocumented immigrants to federal prisons in the lack of other available accommodations.
The New York Times reported on April 20 that over 700 children had been separated from their families by border officials since October of last year. On May 7, President Trump announced a “zero tolerance policy,” in which every immigrant crossing the border—including those seeking asylum—will be arrested and prosecuted for entering the country illegally. The Times reported on June 8 that more than 50,000 individuals were arrested at the border last month alone.
The Keep Families Together Act would allow enforced familial separation “only in the event they are being trafficked or abused by their parents. To provide an additional layer of protection, the bill provides for an immediate review by a superior upon the recommendation to separate, and only after consultation with a child welfare expert,” according to a description of the bill on Feinstein’s website.
A letter to the president, signed by Reed and Whitehouse along with 38 other senators, urged, “Your Administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border is cruel, unnecessary, and goes against our values as Americans.”
The letter also cited new attempts on the part of the Trump administration to make the placement of seized immigrant children with sponsors more difficult, such as a recent memorandum mandating that ICE perform background checks on those sponsoring children, as described in this Mother Jones interview with an expert on immigrant detention. These new tactics, the letter argued, “raise serious concerns.”
A press release sent from Reed’s office highlighted the traumatic psychic and medical harm caused by forced separation and detention of children. It cites a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which asserted that practices of violently isolating children from their families “contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians — protecting and promoting children’s health. In fact, highly stressful experiences can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short and long-term health.”
The senators’ announcement coincided with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to overturn asylum protections for victims of domestic violence and gang-related violence, on the basis that both groups do not pertain to membership in a “particular social group” as stipulated in asylum law. In barring both, Sessions utilized the attorney general’s almost total control of immigration law and spurned multiple court precedents allocating “PSG” status to both categories.
Against Sessions’ additional claim that both groups do not constitute persecuted parties, in a strict skew of the term meaning that their governments “condoned” violence or “demonstrated an inability” to protect those seeking asylum, one might point to the well-documented link between government-sponsored trade deals with Mexico and Central American countries, including the connections the prominent U.S.-backed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and both gang violence and forced migration. This stipulation, while not exactly framed in Sessions’ own language, can provide an illuminating view into our government’s participation in both forms of violence.
“Many of the children and families arriving at our Southwest border have escaped horrific violence and persecution in their home countries,” the letter to the president read. “The decision to use this separation tactic as a ‘deterrent’ is not only frighteningly callous, but demonstrates willful ignorance of the violence and unlivable circumstances many families are risking their lives to escape.”