The Trump administration knew it would not be able to reunite refugee and other migrant families as it ripped children—including infants—from the arms of their parents but did so anyway, according to a congressional report released Thursday on the U.S. government’s family separation policy.
The House Judiciary Committee spent 21 months investigating the planning and execution of the administration’s policy, which resulted in the seizure of more than 2,500 migrant children—including some with physical and mental disabilities—from their parents. Its report (pdf) is the “first complete narrative of the inhumane family separation policy in the administration’s own words.”
The report reveals that the separation policy “lasted far longer than is commonly known and was marked by reckless incompetence and intentional cruelty.”
“Worse still, administration officials knew that the government lacked the capacity to track separated family members and moved forward with separations anyway,” the report states.
The investigators conclude that the family separation policy “was driven by an administration that was willfully blind to its cruelty and determined to go to unthinkable extremes to deliver on political promises.”
To this day, the government is unable to find the parents—roughly two-thirds of whom are believed to have been deported—of 545 children. An unknown number of these children, some of whom were babies when they were taken, may never see their mothers or fathers again.
Many of these victims of what prominent critics including Physicians for Human Rights have called “torture” and “state-sanctioned child abuse” had done nothing wrong, having presented themselves at U.S. ports of entry and requested asylum in full accordance with the law after fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries, much of it resulting from U.S. policies and actions.
“The committee’s report makes clear that the Trump administration was willing to go to extreme lengths, including ripping young children and children with disabilities from the arms of their parents, to stop migrants fleeing violence from seeking protection in the United States,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) in a joint statement.
“Now, more than a year since the end of this cruel policy, the Trump administration has failed to reunite hundreds of children with their families,” they said. “The incompetence is unforgiveable. As we move forward, we need a whole of government approach to reunite these families and put an end to this dark chapter in our nation’s history.”
The report found that the administration began devising its plan to separate families within weeks of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and that it accelerated separations even before fully developing its policy. By March 2017, separations had increased 900% from November 2016.
In July 2017, “without warning,” the administration launched a pilot program in El Paso that lasted five months and in which hundreds of children were seized from their parents. It was during this program that the government determined it would not be able to track or reunite many families—nevertheless, the administration expanded the policy nationwide in May 2018.
Making matters worse, the administration failed to notify frontline agents and officers of the new program, causing “unnecessary chaos and inconsistent implementation of the policy across border sectors.”
Human rights groups once again condemned the administration’s policy and actions in the wake of the new report.
“Today’s report only confirms what this administration’s immigration policies have shown: cruelty was always the point,” Amnesty International refugee and migrant rights researcher Denise Bell said in a statement.
“This administration’s deliberate policy to separate families inflicted severe mental suffering—all in order to deter people from seeking safety or to coerce them into giving up,” said Bell. “This is called torture, and there must be accountability for these heinous acts.”
“There must be an effective criminal investigation of all government officials, personnel, and contractors who are responsible for this shameful period of our history—no matter their current or former level of office,” Bell added.
Immigrant advocates have called family separation—along with forced surgical removal of migrant women’s reproductive organs—the worst domestic human rights violations of the Trump administration.
As public outrage mounted in the face of stories like a breastfeeding baby being torn away from her mother and a father driven to suicide after being separated from his wife and child, the administration reluctantly rolled back the policy in late June 2018. But the damage was done.
Both parents and children—who were often told by U.S. officials that they would never see each other again—have suffered tremendous emotional and psychological trauma. Some, as shown by the hundreds of children still separated from their parents, may indeed never be reunited. Some of the children have been given to U.S. families, who are sometimes able to petition for permanent custody of them.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said last week said that those “545 children are effectively orphaned with the explicit consent and active participation of the Trump administration.”
“They were ripped from their parents’ arms, off-handedly placed in shelters, and left to wonder when, if ever, they would see their parents again,” he said. “Due to the cruelty of Donald Trump and the xenophobia of [White House adviser] Stephen Miller, we know that some of them may never see their parents again.”
At least seven children have also died while imprisoned by U.S. authorities.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promised Thursday that, if elected, he will form a task force to reunite the 545 separated children with their parents.
Trump, on the other hand, continues to defend the separation policy, falsely claimingthat the seized children were brought into the country by human traffickers.