Editorial: Hold federal officials accountable for separating migrant families

©The Seattle Times

Brian van der Brug/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

The needless trauma inflicted on children in President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown remains alive. Court-appointed advocates cannot find the parents — still — for 545 children taken away from their families in 2017 and 2018. That includes about 60 who were under age 5 when forcibly separated.

That’s years of growing, learning and loving missed out on, forever. That’s a tragedy that must remain in this nation’s consciousness. Those responsible must be held accountable.

Trump has tried to obfuscate the cruelty of the decision to separate families to deter migration. Information that trickled out for more than two years makes the harm, and its cause, clear.

An October court filing by American Civil Liberties Union lawyers shows why a full reckoning is overdue. Amid a pandemic and widespread violence in Central America and Mexico, court-appointed researchers are relying on incomplete federal records to search remote areas for missing parents.

The separations began in 2017, around El Paso, Texas. A secret Department of Homeland Security pilot program there took 1,500 children away from parents attempting to migrate to the U.S. When families crossed the border, the parents were detained for official proceedings. The children were spirited off to migrant shelters.

Trump officials expanded it to a full “zero tolerance” policy in May 2018. More than 2,700 children were taken into federal custody in that expansion. Weeks later, a federal judge ordered those families reunited.

But in January 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed the separations were more extensive than the ruling. Further investigations found more than 5,500 children had been separated. Hundreds of these families have now endured years apart.

Deported parents were forced to choose between taking their children back to dangerous countries or permitting the government to assign them to “sponsors” — usually, relatives or family friends — in America. That’s the limbo the 545 children went into. Federal officials said they were with sponsors in 2018 when the judge ordered children in custody reunited with their families. Today, advocates can only definitively say that 183 of the children are still in the U.S.; contact information is no longer valid for sponsors for the other 362. So even if their parents turn up and want the children back, they cannot easily be reunited.

The consequences resonate across the hemisphere. A father and son from Guatemala now living in Seattle sued in federal court Oct. 15 over their ordeal, alleging that the father was tricked onto a deportation flight from Texas after officials told him he’d get to see his son. The son, a teenager, was being held in a New York state shelter, where he alleges sexual abuse. They were kept separate for nine months, said attorney Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Four more families are working with the agency toward filing similar cases, he said.

“We should never forget that at the end of the day, these are still human beings,” Adams said. “Shoving aside human rights to send a political message puts us in history right in line with the worst offenders of human rights.”

America can and must do better.

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©2020 The Seattle Times