Immigration policy, which was a defining issue in the 2016 campaign, finally got a mention in the final 2020 presidential debate. In that debate, much of the time devoted to discussion of immigration centered on the 545 minors who remain separated from their parents as a result of a 2018 policy intended to discourage people from using their kids to gain entry to the United States.
By most accounts, the policy that was in place for a few weeks in the summer of 2018 was a bad option on a menu of policy choices that featured only bad options. The alternatives to removing children from the custody of parents were also bad. They included endangering the safety of children on arduous, sometimes perilous journeys so that the kids could serve essentially as get out of jail free cards once the families crossed illegally into the United States. Even worse, it created opportunities for exploitation of children by unrelated adults who posed as parents, or by human traffickers bringing minors into the United States for illicit purposes.
In some cases, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inexcusably lost track of the children or the parents, delaying reunification. In other instances, prolonged separations were the result of parental choice. Some parents who were returned to their countries of origin elected to leave their kids here as unaccompanied minors who, under our law, are allowed to remain in the country. According to DHS, legal representatives for families have been able to locate the parents of 485 of the 545 children in question and not a single one of them wants their children to be reunited with them in their countries of origin. In essence, these parents are reaffirming the decisions they made two years ago to leave their kids here rather than take them with them when they were deported.
None of us who have not faced the sort of poverty and depravation that led parents to embark on a dangerous journey to the U.S. border in the first place are really in a position to pass judgment of these parental decisions. But neither can we place the blame for these circumstances entirely on the shoulders of DHS and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who implemented the policies that separated them at the border.
While the work of locating the parents of the remaining 60 kids must go on (and it is entirely likely that in many of those cases the adults who accompanied them are not their parents), a more important policy matter that neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden addressed is how to expand the menu of options for dealing with similar situations in the future. In the two-plus years since the policy was implemented and scrapped, Congress has taken exactly zero action to ensure that some future administration is not left with the same bad choices.
Congress has consciously eschewed the most obvious policy fix of enacting legislation that would allow for parents (once they have been positively identified as the parents) and minor children to be detained as a unit while the judicial process determines whether they have a right to enter the country. Since 2015, we have been operating under a judicial order that limits family detention to 20 days, an entirely unrealistic period given the volume of cases being dealt with. After that ruling was handed down, the number of people crossing the border as part of family units grew exponentially.
Second, Congress has the power to fix a loophole in a well-intended law meant to prevent human trafficking that resulted in a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, but has made no effort to do so. Countless additional children have been separated from their parents by a provision in that law that all but guarantees minors who arrive at the border will be admitted (even if they aren’t actually trafficking victims). In many of these cases, parents arrange to have their kids smuggled (often by criminal cartels whose concern for the welfare of their human cargo is negligible or nonexistent) to the United States in the hope that they will have a better life here and perhaps, someday, be able to petition for reunification in this country.
Nobody’s hands are clean when it comes to the matter of kids who remain separated from their families – not the Trump administration, not the Obama administration (of which Mr. Biden was a part) which did the same thing, not the parents who are choosing to have their kids remain here, and not Congress which refuses to fix tragically broken laws and policies.
Instead of spending time assessing blame for what happened two years ago, perhaps time and effort would be better expended on ensuring that the next time we are confronted with a similar situation we have better options available to deal with it.
Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).