The Trump administration has until Thursday to reunite thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents. That unconscionable practice certainly deserves the widespread, bipartisan attention and condemnation it has received, but the nation must not lose track of the terrible conditions under which separated children have been held. More children will be held without their parents, and America must treat them humanely.
The federal government already missed one deadline to reunite children age 5 and older, and there’s good reason to doubt it will meet Thursday’s deadline. As of late last week, less than 15 percent of the 2,551 children had been returned to families.
Even if the administration unexpectedly meets the deadline, some kids will remain in custody without their parents, and more will join them. Children who cross the border without an adult have no one with whom to be reunited. Those who came with adults credibly determined not to be their parents or unsafe as guardians need a place to await adjudication.
How those children are treated while being held is important. The evidence shows that the federal government and its contractors do a poor job.
A report released in May by the American Civil Liberties Union documented widespread abuse of detained children. Detention officials subjected children to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, held them in stress positions, denied them proper medical attention and provided inadequate food, water and shelter.
If a society is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable, history will judge us poorly for what amounts to our torturing kids.
Don’t blame just the Trump administration, though. The ACLU report primarily reviewed cases from 2009 to 2014. That places them squarely under President Obama’s watch. The issue came into greater focus now because of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented migrants and the dismaying ramp of separations.
Not that the Trump administration is absolved. Reports of mistreatment have continued during the current humanitarian crisis on the border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials vehemently deny the charges. Given all that has happened and the reprehensibly racist statements from this administration, count us skeptical. The guards and administrators trained to enforce discipline with cruelty will not change their ways easily.
“There is no evidence that [Department of Homeland Security] has taken any action to address or rectify this pattern of abuse,” the ACLU concluded. “To the contrary: [Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] records indicate that urgent intervention is necessary to protect these vulnerable children from mistreatment, abuse, and violence, which is otherwise bound to occur.”
On Friday, the day after the reunification deadline, attorneys from the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law will argue in federal district court that the Trump administration must do more to meet requirements in the 1998 Flores Settlement Agreement that limits detention of families to no more than 20 days.
That’s an important argument, but the need for reform runs deeper than reunification. America should treat all migrant children the way we’d would want any of our own own children treated.