The administration’s latest threat to break up families arises from a federal court order last month by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, in Los Angeles. Judge Gee, alarmed at the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus at family detention centers run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, gave the agency until next Friday to release scores of children held at the facilities. The judge’s jurisdiction in the long-running case does not cover detained adults, which afforded an opening to the administration to present migrant parents with a perverse choice: give up their children to sponsors or remain with their children inside facilities where the pandemic is tightening its grip. In a separate lawsuit brought by parents, the administration says that if forced to release children, it may not free their parents with them.
Splitting up families would once have seemed unthinkable in most such cases, with the rare exception of migrant parents who might be criminals or abusive. In the Trump administration, it is all too thinkable — despite the trauma it imposes on children. Under cover of the pandemic, the White House has choked off legal and illegal immigration, and suspended the decades-long system of asylum under which persecuted individuals could apply for refuge in the United States. Since the spring, more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border hoping for asylum have been summarily expelled.
The virus has already gained a foothold in two family detention centers in Texas run by ICE, where detainees and employees have tested positive. The contagion at the Texas centers, where CDC-recommended precautions are enforced spottily, prompted Judge Gee to conclude that the facilities “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half-measures.”
Despite her ruling, the government now seeks to prolong those half-measures. Administration lawyers argue that officials should be required only to address health and safety violations at the facilities, not release detainees. That’s a fair argument in theory; in practice, ICE has had months to comply with guidelines to protect staff and detainees from covid-19 but has failed to. Beyond the family detention centers it runs, where some 280 parents and children are housed, it holds more than 17,000 migrants at other facilities nationwide; of those, nearly 3,000 have tested positive for the virus, in addition to several dozen ICE employees.
The United States is a fundamentally compassionate and decent country. Compassion and decency compel a clear path forward: releasing parents and children together from ICE custody. Sadly, very little in this administration’s makeup suggests it will do the right thing.