Undocumented immigrants: Will Trump administration separate parents from children?

The Department of Homeland Security is weighing a proposal that would separate parents from children as they cross the border. Is it better for children or a 'Sophie's choice' for parents?

Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File
A Guatemalan woman makes her way to the bus station with her four children after leaving a migrant shelter in Mexico City in January to continue the journey north. The Department of Homeland Security is weighing a proposal that would separate mothers from children at the border, which it may hope will discourage parents from making the journey.

As the Department of Homeland Security steps up immigration law enforcement and announces its plans to solicit bids for constructing a border wall, it is also revisiting another suggestion intended to discourage migrants from making the journey: Separating parents and children when they are apprehended at the border.

On Friday, a senior DHS official confirmed to CNN that the proposal was under consideration. Adults would be taken to detention centers while they awaited a decision on their cases. Children, meanwhile, would be allowed into the US and either sent to stay with relatives or placed in state custody.

The approach is designed to eliminate what some Republican legislators have termed a “free pass” under the current system, whereby adults accompanied by children can be quickly released into the US while they wait for an asylum decision. But some are concerned that separating families would infringe on the human rights of children and parents alike.

"Bottom line: separating mothers and children is wrong," Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) of Texas, whose district includes 280 miles of the US-Mexico border, said in a statement, Reuters reported. That kind of situation, he indicated, could very quickly “depart from border security and get into violating human rights.”

In line with the Flores v. Lynch ruling, all migrant children have to be processed expeditiously. And keeping families together means that adults who arrive in the country with children currently benefit from the same treatment. With that in mind, the Obama administration had been detaining families for 21 days and then releasing them as a unit.

The ruling, however, does not require families to be kept together, giving the Department of Homeland Security the option to separate them. The same senior DHS official told CNN that such an approach could discourage the exploitation of children, indicating that some children were taken on dangerous journeys or used by smugglers to make it easier for adults to remain in the US.

Without the guarantee that they would stay together and be quickly released, many families might choose to stay in their home countries, DHS indicated. 

"With safety in mind, the Department of Homeland Security continually explores options that may discourage [people] from even beginning the journey," the Department told Reuters in a statement.

But others argue that the approach would force families to choose between what may be an untenable situation in their country of origin and being separated in order to pursue their asylum claim. Speaking to MSNBC, Andrew Free, an immigration lawyer in Nashville who represents clients applying for asylum, described it as a “Sophie’s choice.”

And it may have lasting implications for children, according to Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the National Immigration Law Center. She told Reuters the move “could create lifelong psychological trauma … especially for children that have just completed a perilous journey from Central America.”

Such concerns eventually deterred the Obama administration from trying the approach, Leon Fresco, a former DOJ official in the Obama administration, told CNN.

“The idea was that it was too detrimental to the safety of the children to separate them from their parents, and the thinking was it was always preferable to detain the family as a unit or release the family as the unit," he said.

Ultimately, the decision to separate families - or not - may hinge on its affordability. The Trump administration has called for an expansion of detention facilities, but financing detention may become too expensive in the long term.

“You are talking about a pretty rapid increase in the detention population if you are going to do this," Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-profit, told Reuters. "The question is really how much detention can they afford."

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