United States: New revelations about children separated from parents

A demonstrator protests the deportation of Central American asylum seekers, in Los Angeles.

It is now abundantly clear that the Donald Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards parents with children seeking asylum in the US involves separating children from their parents, keeping the children in the US and deporting the parents.

Earlier, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that children in this situation would be placed in “foster care or whatever”. After a federal court ruling, the administration reversed course and said it would seek to reunite the children with their parents.

It soon became clear that no records had been kept of which children belonged to which parents. DNA samples were taken in an attempt to organise reunifications.

Many parents had already deported before Trump ordered the reunifications while their children remained in the US. The government admits that 463 parents fall into this category.

Many of these deported parents were fleeing with their children from extreme violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Where they are now in these countries is a mystery, since they have to hide to avoid the violence they fled from.

Obviously, it is very difficult to reunite these families.

Making light of this situation with a sick joke, Trump proposed that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) be put in charge of finding the parents. The ACLU is one of the groups taking legal steps against the whole evil and cruel “zero tolerance” policy.

Reports from immigration lawyers say that new asylum seekers are being summarily denied asylum at the border. In June, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced that fleeing from gang and domestic violence — which most cite as their reason for seeking asylum — would no longer be considered valid reasons to be granted asylum.

A phone call from an official informs the parents that they do not have a valid case and they are not even granted an interview before being denied entry.

On August 7, the ACLU filed a suit in federal court challenging the new policy, arguing it violates due process “in numerous aspects”.

The ACLU filed an earlier suit arguing that many of the parents were coerced or misled to signing forms which authorities used to say means they “voluntarily” agreed to be deported. The ACLU said many could not read the forms and were confused about what they were signing. Many of the asylum seekers are indigenous, and do not read English or Spanish.

The forms contained three choices. One asked: “Do you agree to be deported and reunited with your child outside?” Those who checked that box were then deported and their children left behind.

Another asked: “Do you agree to be deported but reunited with your child before?” Those who checked that box were reunited with their children, if they could be matched up. Hundreds of children have yet to be matched with their parents.

Families that could be matched up get reunited — in jail.

The third alternative asked: “Do you want to speak with your lawyer?” One immigration lawyer reported that a client who checked that box was accosted by an officer who said to her: “Don’t you want to be with your child? Don’t you want to be reunited with your child?”   

According to administration figures, 105 of the about 3000 children separated from their parents are under the age of five. Some were still breast feeding.

The government claims to have reunited 57 of them. The remaining 46 won’t be reunited with their parents, because the government claims the parents are criminals or otherwise unfit. It gives no information backing up its determination. Those 46 will now presumably placed in Kelly’s “foster care or whatever”.

Hundreds of parents with children older than five have been similarly ruled as unfit to be reunited with their children.

More information has been uncovered by investigative reporters, lawyers for the parents and their children, and even observant bystanders.

One such observer was Lianna Dunlap in Phoenix, Arizona. She noticed white vans loaded with children pulling up to a vacant office building behind her house on June 4. The next day she videotaped more children being led into the building.

Dunlap never saw children leave or go outside for three weeks, then she and her neighbors saw up to 80 children being led out. The windows were blacked out, so sunlight never entered the building. She contacted local media, which is how reporters found out.

They discovered the site had been leased in March for five years by a private company MVM, which has been contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). MVM admitted the building had no kitchen and few toilets. It turns out that ICE has been using private contractors to turn various buildings into detention centres for the asylum-seeking parents and their separated children.

Immigrant advocates report that some children have been released from contractor-run ICE sites with scabies and lice. A Chicago contractor, Heartland Alliance, is being investigated for abuse and neglect of immigrant children.

The Washington Post reported that at one Heartland Alliance site, a boy was repeatedly injected with a drug that made him drowsy. Another boy was denied medication for weeks after injuring his arm. It also said children were kept under surveillance with hidden cameras, and prevented from hugging their siblings.

The Center for Investigative Reporting said that about US$1.5 billion has been paid by the federal government in the past four years to companies operating immigrant youth detention centers that faced accusations of serious lapses in care. This began under the Barack Obama administration.

Children held at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas were restrained and injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs against their will. This made them dizzy, listless, obese and sometimes incapacitated.

On August 8, the human rights group Dream Defenders held a national day of action at offices of the GEO Group across the country. The GEO Group is ICE’s single biggest contractor that runs private immigrant prisons. In retaliation, GEO Group has threatened to sue the Dream Defenders.

The separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, even if they end up reunited, and the new policy of rejecting asylum seekers at the border, has had the effect Trump aimed for: frightening would-be asylum seekers from even trying.

Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign also includes widening deportation of mainly Latino workers without papers. But his sights are also set on greatly reducing legal immigration, as his ban on Muslim immigrants also indicates.

Trump recently tweeted: “I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch and Release etc. and finally go to a system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our country!”

The “lottery” refers to a policy originally set up to give applicants from certain countries Green Cards. This allows them to work in the US. Only a small number of applicants would be chosen by lottery.

“Catch and Release” refers to the previous practice of allowing those seeking to immigrate into the country to live in the community while awaiting the decision of immigration courts on their application to stay.

One aspect of his idea of supposed “merit” was when he infamously said he didn’t want people from “shithole countries” like Haiti and African countries to immigrate. Instead, he said he preferred people from places such as Norway. White people, in other words.

Trump’s idea of “merit” generally involves keeping out the great unwashed hordes — ordinary workers and peasants. However, some would-be immigrants with advanced degrees needed by the technology sector would be allowed in.

The Trump administration is building on the racist anti-immigrant machinery built under Obama and previous presidents. But Trump is ratcheting up the cruelty to new levels.