Separated Children: Has the Trump Administration Lost it Moral Compass?


By Michael Bociurkiw

Updated June 21, 2018 - 18:23GMT

“We all should be able to agree that in the United States of America we will not intentionally separate children from their parents. We will not do that; we are better than that...we are so much better.”

That emotional declaration by Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, eloquently summed up how many people around the world feel about the inhumane policy of separating children from their parents who have been detained and charged by US officials for allegedly sneaking into the United States. 

There have been 2342 children separated from their parents and put into detention between May 4 and June 9, with the number growing every day. And on any given day there are more than 40,000 migrants in detention in the U.S.

Yesterday the AP reported that even babies and very young children are being separated and sent to three detention centers in south Texas. Video footage released by US officials show children in cages, sleeping on floors with little more than space blankets for cover. The lights are kept on round-the-clock and there is little to keep the incarcerated children busy. One separated girl said she had to show other children how to change the diaper on a toddler. Many of the facilities do not meet minimum humanitarian requirements, experts say.

And on June 22, the AP reported migrant children as young as 14 housed at a juvenile detention center in Virginia say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

Such images - being beamed around the world from the world’s leading democracy - has shocked former colleagues who have worked with separated children in conflict zones. Said one former UNICEF executive: “I recall in Iraq children being put in pens, and it was appalling. Now we are doing it here. May the gods help us all.”

With the shocking images of deplorable conditions inside makeshift detention centers, the chorus of criticism against the Trump Administration has reached a deafening pitch. All living former First Ladies, along with Melania Trump, have urged Trump to nix the policy. 

Even corporate giants such as American Airlines have taken a stand, saying it has told the US Government to stop using the airline “for the purposes of transporting children who have been separated from their families due to the current immigration policy. We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it.” (Also on Wednesday United Airlines, Southwest, Delta and Alaska Airlines asked the US Government not to transport separated children on its route network).

With support from staunch Republicans crumbling, a new executive order was signed by President Trump Wednesday that will end the separation policy and reunite families. However the order was widely viewed as a publicity stunt and it will not do away with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that criminally prosecutes adult suspects and it will still keep children in detention - albeit with their parents. (Another complication is that current laws on the books will require the release of children from detention facilities within 20 days).

Significantly, the order will not impact the 2000-plus children already separated, observers say.

Plain and simple, the morally bankrupted administration of Donald Trump leveraged the child separation crisis to win gains on immigration reform - including the building of the controversial border wall between the US and Mexico and harsher enforcement. 

But separating children shows how far the current occupants of the White House will go to please their base. It goes against the basic tenants of child protection practices in humanitarian crises. If there is anything we have learned from working with children in natural and man-made disasters it is that children separated from their parents or guardians face immense distress and disruption. 

Says the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which opposes the US policy: “Detention and family separation are traumatic experiences that can eave children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and can create toxic stress which, as multiple studies have shown, can impact children’s long-term development.”

Even if the executive order brings an immediate end to separations it will take an immense effort to reunite more than 2000 children with their parents. Documents tend to get misplaced, young children cannot cite contact details and those with disabilities may have trouble communicating. According to media reports, many of the separated children are scattered around the country and some of their parents have already been deported.

It is safe to assume that many children in detention have already been exposed to unimaginable distress from long and dangerous journeys from their countries of origin. By being thrown into so-called tender age shelters upon arrival into the United States they face additional uncertainty and distress. Separation can trigger feelings of helplessness, deny children of their right to play and severely disrupt their learning.

The situation created by the Trump Administration is nothing less than a humanitarian disaster  And this time it is man-made.