Last month President Trump signed an executive order that ends the separation of children from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy, which criminally prosecutes immigrants that cross the border without documentation. While President Trump made it clear that the zero-tolerance policy will remain in effect, the executive order states that it is now the administration’s intention to keep immigrant families together throughout the criminal proceedings process. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” Trump said at the signing. “At the same time, we are keeping a very powerful border, but continue to be zero tolerance.”
While immigration advocates welcomed the news about the ending of the family separation policy, they say the executive order creates additional problems by seeking to indefinitely detain parents and children together. “The President doesn’t get any brownie points for moving from a policy of locking up kids and families separately to locking them up together. Let’s be clear that Trump is making a crisis of his own creation worse,” Karen Tumlin, director of legal strategy at the National Immigration Law Center, says in Time. “Children, especially those fleeing persecution, need safety and environments where they can thrive and play and be safe. They don’t need jail.” Additionally, the executive order is likely to face obstacles, since it attempts to modify the 1997 Flores Agreement that limits the ability of the government to detain children. Indeed, on Monday, a California federal judge rejected the government's attempt to detain families together on a longer-term basis.
The week after President Trump signed the executive order, Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego separately issued a preliminary injunction to reunite the detained children and ordered the federal government to reunite children under five with their families by July 10th and children older than five with their families by July 26th. The government objected to this injunction, asking for time for agencies to implement the executive order signed by President Trump. Since then government agencies have said they do not have adequate resources to comply with this court order, and it appears likely they will not meet the first deadline.
Although Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reassured Congress that his department would be able to find children in their care “within seconds,” the agency has been having difficulty figuring out how to handle children in three unfamiliar categories: those whose parents were released from detention recently, those whose parents are currently still being detained, and those whose parents have already been deported. “It’s been really difficult to start the reunification process because we just don’t have a lot of direction from leadership,” an anonymous official at the refugee office tells Politico. “That’s been slowing things up, because there’s just been a lot of confusion.”
As children are beginning to be reunited with families, many are concerned about the lasting trauma. Stephanie Carnes, a bilingual licensed clinical social worker who has worked with child immigrants from Central America, writes: “Exposure to trauma in childhood can both stunt cognitive development and alter the structure of a young brain in profound ways…we know that exposure to traumatic events in childhood is strongly correlated with increased risk of suicide attempts, drug addiction, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and liver disease.” She adds: “If these children are sent home, their prospects are much worse for the harrowing experience stateside. And if they are permitted to stay, the already fraught process of adjusting and assimilating to a new country will be much harder in the aftermath of senseless cruelty.”