The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Migrant families’ nightmare is far from over

Protesters in Chicago on June 30.
Protesters in Chicago on June 30. (Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)

ONE HUNDRED AND THREE. That’s the number of small children a federal judge ordered the federal government to reunite with their migrant parents by Tuesday. Yet even that modest number proved too taxing for the Trump administration, which wrenched toddlers from their mothers this spring without the vaguest notion of how, one day, they might be joined again.

By Thursday, officials said that 57 of the 103 children under age 5 had rejoined their parents; the other 46 remained in custody. In some cases, the government determined that the parents had criminal records or weren’t the children’s parents at all. In others, however, the parents had been deported, with no thought by U.S. officials for their children left behind.

U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw’s instructions two weeks earlier were clear — his orders, the judge reminded Justice Department lawyers Tuesday, “are firm deadlines; they’re not aspirational goals.” Yet officials pleaded with the judge that repairing the families that the government had broken could not be rushed. An official at the Department of Health and Human Services, Chris Meekins, said, “Our process may not be as quick as some might like, but there is no question it is protecting children” — an Orwellian remark that revealed the full measure of the administration’s heedlessness. Having likely inflicted profound psychological and emotional damage on small children, how could anyone question the government’s chops as their protector?

In its incompetence and callousness, the Trump administration sundered families without establishing a paper trail that would facilitate eventual reunification. So when the judge rendered his order, on June 26, the administration was caught flat-footed. In some cases, delays in reuniting families were explained by the need, now, to extract DNA samples, which no one thought of when children were taken from their parents in the first place. Some of the children, when finally presented to their parents, failed to recognize them.

Those 103 children are just the start. Mr. Sabraw ordered that nearly 3,000 more minors, ages 5 to 17, be reunited with their parents by July 26. Having failed to meet a deadline for 103 children, how will the government meet another for many more?

When families were reunited this week, most were released on the basis of a court decision forbidding the detention of minors for more than 20 days. The parents were made to wear ankle monitors to ensure their appearance at immigration court hearings.

But the Trump administration seems determined to double down on its cruelty. Government lawyers would not commit to releasing the parents of older children once they are reunited. Instead, they suggested that detained parents might be offered an unbearable choice: either to agree to be detained along with their children, thereby waiving their sons’ and daughters’ right to release, or to allow the children to be released to officials, who would then place them with a relative or another sponsor.

Carrying out that policy would require more family-detention beds than currently exist. Undeterred, the administration is trying to add capacity. The administration’s manufactured nightmare of family separation is not over.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The family-separation crisis is not over

The Post’s View: Repugnant

Catherine Rampell: Finally, a family separation story with a happy ending

Sarah Lustbader: It’s not just at the border. The U.S. separates families all the time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Ripping children from parents will shatter America’s soul