The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Family separation was a catastrophe. And it could happen again.

Two young mothers from Honduras and their children are detained by U.S. Border Patrol after rafting across the Rio Grande in June 2018. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Even now, four years after the Trump administration’s family separation policy ended, hundreds of migrant children remain on the list of those who have not been reunited with their parents. The policy, which began months after President Donald Trump took office, led to the forcible removal of more than 5,500 infants, toddlers, tweens and teenagers who crossed the U.S. border with their parents. There was no system to track, connect or reunite them with their families — and, by the design of some the officials in charge, no intention of doing so.

A detailed investigation by Caitlin Dickerson in the Atlantic revealed the policy’s blatant immorality, along with the bullying, cowardice, lies and bureaucratic incompetence in its planning and implementation. Ms. Dickerson’s reporting underscored that Congress has passed nothing to ensure a future president does not reimpose the policy; in fact, even after it was terminated, Mr. Trump pushed to revive it, and he could do so again if he wins a second term. There has been no accounting for the officials who conceived, pushed and carried it out. Nor has the U.S. government offered the traumatized families permanent legal residence in the United States, even as a means of reuniting deported parents with their children. It is past time for Congress to address these issues.

The policy’s architects wanted to inflict such trauma on families that prospective migrants would be deterred from entering the United States, even to pursue legal asylum claims. “We need to take away children” were the instructions federal prosecutors reported that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave them. Despite warnings of terrible consequences, a rogues’ gallery of arrogant, obsequious and unprincipled officials pressed ahead, driven by ideological zeal, careerism or fear of the Trump White House. Under Mr. Trump, the policy’s advocates included Stephen Miller, a top White House aide; Thomas Homan, who led Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Matt Albence, ICE’s enforcement chief; Kevin McAleenan, the top official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and, later, acting Homeland Security secretary; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein; and Gene Hamilton, a Justice Department official.

Lies, finger-pointing, self-delusion and misdirection were rife. Officials said, falsely, that the migrant families were “fake” or that the children were trafficking victims. Some insisted the children were treated no differently than those of arrested U.S. citizens, overlooking the fact that citizens are routinely reunited with their children at the end of the legal process. One pernicious lie was that a family separation policy did not exist — only Mr. Sessions’s “zero tolerance” prosecutions of all migrant border crossers. In fact, documents show that deterrence-by-trauma was the policy’s explicit purpose.

It succeeded in that regard, if no other. Neris Gonzalez, a Salvadoran consular official stationed at a migrant processing center in Texas, “saw a sea of children and parents, screaming, reaching for each other, and fighting the Border Patrol agents who were pulling them apart,” Ms. Dickerson writes. “Children were clinging to whatever part of their parents they could hold on to — arms, shirts, pant legs.”

“Finally,” Ms. Gonzalez is quoted as saying, “the agent would pull hard and take away the child. It was horrible. These weren’t some little animals that they were wrestling over; they were human children.”

Congress must ensure future presidents never try this again.

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