Homeland Security’s plan to break up families would have terrible consequences for kids

Moms and children should be released together.

In this July 7, 2015, file photo, immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally walk through a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File
In this July 7, 2015, file photo, immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally walk through a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly confirmed Monday that his agency plans to separate Central American children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, to serve as a deterrent for future border-crossers.

“We have tremendous experience in dealing with unaccompanied minors,” Kelly said, during an interview with The Situation Room’s Wolf Blitzer. “We turn them over to HHS [Department of Health and Human Services], and they do a very, very good job of either putting them in kind of foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.”

Kelly said that his agency is considering separating families “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network… They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.”

Under the proposal, children would be placed with the Department of Health and Human Services in the “least restrictive setting” possible while parents wait for their immigration court hearings in custody. Placing children in the “least restrictive setting” likely allows the agency to comply with the Flores Settlement Agreement, a legal settlement that ensures the right of detained children to receive a bond hearing, and for them to be turned over to adult guardians when possible.

Central American families and unaccompanied minors have been showing up in large numbers at the southern U.S. border since late December 2013. Many of these individuals seek humanitarian relief because of violent conditions and grinding poverty in their home countries. Honduras’ San Pedro Sula held the title of “Murder Capital of the World” for a peacetime country in 2014 and 2015. El Salvador’s San Salvador took over that morbid title in 2016.

Kelly’s vision of deterrence is seemingly egregious, but the Obama administration also had a harsh strategy of deterrence. Under Obama, mothers and children were detained together in family detention centers for prolonged periods of time. Unaccompanied children were also put in expedited deportation proceedings so they were often returned to their home countries without adequate due process.

In addition to moral concerns, human rights and immigrant rights groups are deeply skeptical that family separation would deter people from crossing the southern U.S. border.

“Family separation itself is incongruous to human rights,” Tarah Demant, senior director at Amnesty International, told ThinkProgress. “Separating children from their parents — that’s not a solution. Not detaining them is the solution.”

“It’s problematic on so many fronts — separating children from their parents is deeply traumatizing,” Katharina Obser, the Senior Program Officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told ThinkProgress. “These are often individuals who are fleeing violence, fleeing trauma, who are arriving at the border to seek safety. It’s important to underscore that it is not illegal to seek asylum at the border.”

“This will also have tough consequences for individuals to seek protection because if families are separated, and they’re trying to make an asylum claim, they may not be able to do that anymore,” Obser added. “Access to legal counsel may be impacted or just the understanding to make an asylum claim could be impacted.”

Demant pointed out that while she didn’t endorse one option over another, there are other ways to ensure immigrants show up for their court hearings, including staying with family members or in transition homes, or wearing ankle monitors that can track immigrants.

“It’s not like they’re being released to the winds and we’ll never see them again,” Demant said. “It’s not what happens to asylum seekers.”

“We believe that people who are fleeing horrific violence will continue to flee horrific violence,” Obser said. “Threatening them with separation or whatever other measures will simply risk those families even more vulnerable and smuggling, which is a huge concern.”

In fact, federal data shows that the majority of immigrants do show up at hearings. As the American Immigration Council pointed out, 74 percent of immigrants who had to appear on their own recognizance showed up to their immigration court hearings. And when juveniles had legal representation, appearance rates shot up to 92.5 percent.