Need to Know: Trump Tries to Save Face on Migrant Family Separation Crisis
Trump attempted to reconcile the youth migrant detention policy with an executive order, but failed to address the root of the human rights controversy.
Published on June 22, 2018

Photo via iStock/ vichinterlang

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to end America’s controversial border policing policy that has separated some 2,300 children from their parents over the past two months, calling for immigrant families accused of crossing the U.S. border illegally to be detained together. Simultaneously, President Trump refused to rescind the administration’s “zero tolerance” border rule, indefinitely continuing the same immigration control tactics that lead to separated minors in the first place.

Trump signed the executive order on Wednesday, offering a number of contradictory statements about the effects of and reasoning behind the presidential decree.

“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be,” Trump rambled to reporters at the beginning of Thursday’s signing ceremony. “If you are really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong. We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together. I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.” The decision came after policymakers on both sides of the aisle, Trump’s wife Melania and daughter Ivanka, and even Pope Francis, among others, reportedly admonished the child detention policy.

Once Trump signed the order, activists and media members immediately began asking questions about what would happen to families detained at the border, and when the thousands of children taken into custody over the past two months would be reunited with their parents. White House and Department of Homeland Security officials were unable to answer those inquiries or provide any specifics about the effects of the order.

On Thursday, confusion about the new policy continued, as immigration officials announced the beginning of a plan to house some 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children at military bases in Texas and Arkansas, but did release any new information about attempts to reunite separated children from their parents. Currently, more than 2,000 kids under the age of 12 are being held at so-called “tender age” shelters. And despite her alleged objection to the original policy, Melania caused her own stir Thursday on a trip to visit migrant children detained in Texas, when the First Lady boarded a private plane in a jacket with the words “I REALLY DON'T CARE. DO U?” printed in bold lettering across the back.

Even if Trump’s executive order is successful in bringing families back together, the action faces legal restrictions based on a 1997 court ruling about cruel detention practices. According to that federal case law, immigrant children can only be held in U.S. custody for 20 days, whether they are with their parents or not. Under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance border rule, any adult accused of crossing the border without permission will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. By detaining thousands more adults, immigration officials eventually be required to once again begin separating children from their guardians after 20 days. On Thursday, a Department of Justice spokesman confirmed that the agency’s firm migrant arrest standards would continue despite Trump’s executive action.

“It is outrageous that the president is pushing the criminal detention of innocent children as a solution to his own evil act,” Kevin Appleby, a senior director at the Center for Migration Studies, told the New York Times. “The best solution would be releasing families to sponsors or placing them in community-based alternatives to detention programs, which are less expensive and much more humane.”

Until Trump moves to end the zero tolerance policy and reconsiders how the U.S. treats foreign nationals seeking asylum, it appears that border police will continue to carry out their controversial orders and rip young children away from their desperate parents.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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