In immigrant detention, a role for children

Beneath the moral debate over Trump’s actions on the children of detained immigrants lies a potential to see their innocence as common ground.

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 18.

Just three years ago, many Americans were in moral outrage over a particular immigration policy of President Barack Obama. Faith leaders decried it. Hillary Clinton, then a presidential contender, considered it inhumane. And a federal judge ruled it unlawful.

Now President Trump faces similar outrage – also from faith leaders, top members of his party, and perhaps soon the courts – for a particular immigration policy.

Mr. Obama’s action involved the holding of children in restrictive jail-like detention centers along with their parents, who were considered flight risks either because they had entered the country illegally or because their request for asylum had not yet been verified. Those who were presumed innocent, or minors, were in a harsh lock-up with the presumed-guilty: adults.

Mr. Trump’s action involves separating immigrant children from their parents, often into shelters more than hard detention. In his case, the presumed-innocent are being denied parental care, even sometimes the knowledge of a parent’s whereabouts.

In both cases, the moral and legal issues can be complex, a result of the difficulty in today’s political climate in finding a balance between the justice system’s often-competing demands. Those demands include safety for society from people facing legal charges, compassion for immigrants, deterrence of illegal entry, and mercy toward those fleeing violence or persecution in their country.

The issues are compounded by clashing views of immigration in general, legal or illegal. In addition, some elected leaders, including Trump, have used such issues as tools for political purposes.

Yet beneath the moral debate lies a common link, one that is spiritual in nature and thus might lead to finding common ground for a resolution in how to treat immigrant children.

From different directions, both sides have shown some recognition of the innocence of children and the need to protect them from either illegal confinement, harsh conditions, or harsh isolation. This is a starting point. Innocence itself, as reflected in children, has often served as a restorative quality in the justice system. Perhaps now it can do so in the current US debate.

The best examples of the effect of innocence are different practices in the United States and elsewhere that allow children to keep in touch with detained parents, either those awaiting a hearing or deportation, or serving a sentence in a jail or prison. If a parent is not deemed unfit, many places of incarceration welcome visits by children. The encounter can bring hope to detained parents. A child can be someone who sees them as innocent in character.

The various programs differ in how they try to retain a bond between parents and children. Some have nurseries for infants. Others hold book readings. Some allow supervised visits at a relative’s home or in dormitory-like settings. Many try to limit the exposure of prison life to kids, such as a pat-down of a parent.

Among the earliest programs in the US are two in Texas’ Bexar County. One is called Mothers and Their Children (MATCH), which began in 1984, and the other is Papas And Their Children (PATCH), which launched a decade later. The contact between kids and their parents who qualify for the program, say officials at the Bexar jail, has led to lower rates of rearrest for many of those released. The program also has a calming effect inside the jail.

Detained parents who are nonviolent or who endure confinement while awaiting justice are often punished enough without also not being allowed to have contact with their children. In fact, children can be a healing presence, just by being pure of heart. 

The practical question is for how long and under what conditions. US officials can look for examples in a wide variety of programs in detention centers around the world. Innocence is a known quality for either solace or rehabilitation of confined parents.

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