A cruel policy reversed, thankfully

G Krishnan | Updated on June 21, 2018

US President Donald Trump displays an executive order on immigration policy after signing it in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US.   -  Reuters

The moral outrage over separating children of illegal immigrants from their parents forced Trump to change his decision

For weeks, the world was horrified as American immigration officials stopped illegal migrants at the southern border with Mexico and took away their children, one of them a 10-month baby with Down Syndrome. At the shelters, officials were told not to even touch young babies or comfort them. When children cried “mommy” or “daddy”, one official said coarsely that the “orchestra has begun” and another chimed in that “we need a conductor”.

Many of the people stopped at the border were fleeing gang violence and persecution in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and applying for asylum, which is permitted under international conventions that the US has ratified; others are in search of economic opportunity.

Every summer, thousands of Hispanics stream into the US legally to work at low-paying jobs that Americans do not want to do. Most of them return home, but many also manage to escape. For years, US companies and rich Americans have employed migrants — legal and illegal. Trump’s own resorts employ a large number of Hispanic migrants, at minimum wage.

For decades, successive governments have ignored illegal migration or taken baby steps to contain it. During the presidential election, Trump successfully whipped up anti-immigrant sentiments among this “Keep America White” constituents and doggedly pursued the idea of a wall at the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants, whom he described as “murderers, thieves and animals” who want to “infest our country”. He began the Zero Tolerance Programme and prosecuted the illegals under common criminal laws instead of immigration laws as was done by earlier administrations.

Immigration laws allow families to stay together while their cases are being tried by courts. In 1997, a Los Angeles judge hearing a class-action suit on the treatment of children said keeping children in custody is cruel. The judge issued a decree that required officials to take them away within three days of detention and hand them over to close relatives or keep them in government care programmes. President Barack Obama was forced to release the accused into the US while the cases were being heard. Trump reversed that approach and instead went after the families under common criminal laws. Anyone committing a crime was put in jail and their children handed over to foster parents, often never to be reunited. He said keeping the kids away would deter people from trying to come over illegally.

The howl of protest against Trump’s programme turned louder when Getty Images photographer John Moore shot a picture of a young girl bawling when officials took away her mother at the border — until then, the children were separated privately, with parents being lied to that they were being taken to be given a bath or fed. Parents never saw their children again. Soon, an audio tape emerged of children in detention centres crying for their “mommy” and “daddy”. World leaders, including Pope Francis, condemned the detention as “evil” and “heartless”. First Lady Melania Trump — who once worked illegally as a model — urged her husband to rescind his policy.

On Wednesday, Trump huddled with his officials, concerned at “the negative image of the bawling children”, according to CNN. He issued an executive order — in the glare of cameras — allowing border officials to keep families together. He said the Zero Tolerance Programme would continue; only that kids would not be taken away.

While signing the order, Trump again twisted the facts, claiming he was reversing something that was going on for 60 years and which “nobody had the political courage to take care of”.

For weeks, he claimed that he was only following the law that had been passed by Democrats — only that there was no such law.

Trump’s order can be challenged in court. He must now persuade Congress or the Los Angeles judge to allow children to remain with their parents even after 20 days. Critics say no guidelines have been issued on how those detained will be treated hereafter or where the families will be housed.

Meanwhile, the fate of 2,342 children who were separated in the past two months is unknown. Many of them have been moved in secretly to Miami and New York without the knowledge of local officials. Earlier, officials said there were no plans to reunite the families. On Wednesday, one official said they would try to do so even though there are no records of the whereabouts of the adults and many have been deported. Most of the children are below the age of 10 years and some don’t even know the names of their parents.

The writer is a freelance journalist and editorial consultant

Published on June 21, 2018

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