Family separations remain an exercise in ‘gratuitous cruelty’ - Miami Herald Op-Ed, Cheryl Little

MARCH 28, 2019 07:03 PM, UPDATED APRIL 01, 2019 02:41 PM

We recently learned that in addition to the more than 2,700 children that the Trump administration has acknowledged were separated from their families at the border, thousands more families were likely separated. U.S. immigration policy continues to tear apart families in many ways, creating trauma from which some will never recover.

Many of the children taken from their parents ended up in South Florida. We began seeing these children in July 2017. Pedro, 8, an indigenous Guatemalan boy, was torn from his father’s arms and watched Border Patrol agents throw his father to the ground and handcuff him. It took a year to locate Pedro’s father.

We recently learned that in addition to the more than 2,700 children that the Trump administration has acknowledged were separated from their families at the border, thousands more families were likely separated. U.S. immigration policy continues to tear apart families in many ways, creating trauma from which some will never recover.

Many of the children taken from their parents ended up in South Florida. We began seeing these children in July 2017. Pedro, 8, an indigenous Guatemalan boy, was torn from his father’s arms and watched Border Patrol agents throw his father to the ground and handcuff him. It took a year to locate Pedro’s father.

Our new report “Family Separation: Broken Systems, Broken Families” details the trauma suffered by our child clients and the unprecedented challenges created for our staff as they help young children navigate a complex immigration system. Americans for Immigrant Justice has helped more than 100 children reunite with families so far.

Family separation is doing lasting harm. Many children had no opportunity to say goodbye to their parents, and their confusion and fear when we meet with them is palpable. Attorneys spend a lot of time just holding children’s hands or giving them stuffed animals to hold when trying to prepare them for their court cases.

Several of the children were too young to give us basic information, like their parent’s full name. Meanwhile, parents were tricked by immigration officials into signing papers in English, thinking they would be reunited with their children, only to find they had unwittingly waived their right to seek asylum and would be deported alone.

Most troubling, parents and children were separated with no government plan to reunite them.

In their rush to close the border, officials are ignoring what’s causing families to undertake the perilous journey. Violent gangs and criminal drug cartels operate with impunity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and many see flight as the only way to save their lives and those of their children. U.S. policy in Central America, dating back decades, has played a significant role in the failure of those countries to develop strong democratic institutions.

Exacerbating matters, children — including toddlers — unable to secure free lawyers are required to represent themselves in immigration court, forced to go up against government lawyers seeking to deport them. Those without lawyers will almost certainly lose their cases, regardless of what is at stake. More than 10,000 children without lawyers have cases pending in Miami immigration court.

During our 20 years of helping children, we have learned about the many challenges children face when they arrive at our border, but nothing could have prepared us for the forcible separation of families.

Taking the most vulnerable immigrants among us — children — and needlessly subjecting them to lasting trauma in order to deter families from exercising their basic rights is a gratuitous cruelty. It benefits no one and belies the the American people’s real compassion. Moreover, separating a child from a parent with no regard as to when they would ever see each other again is a serious human-rights violation. Regardless of how people enter the United States, they have every right to due process under this nation’s and international laws to make their case for asylum here.

Still, our hope for justice for all is alive. We will continue to represent children who otherwise would face increasingly difficult court battles alone and to fight for fair and sensible immigration reform.

In 2013, a bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate, but was never brought to the House floor for a vote, despite many lawmakers believing the vote for passage was there. It’s past time to get this done.

Read it via The Miami Herald here.

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AI Justice is an award-winning non-profit law and advocacy firm that protects and promotes the basic human rights of immigrants. In Florida and on a national level, we champion the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocate for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serve as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; and speak for immigrant groups who have particular and compelling claims to justice.