Trump’s Executive Order Doesn’t Undo Trauma

Photo: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order to end the family separation policy his own administration enacted. But the order offers no discernible plan to reunite the 2300 children already separated from their families. It does not end the criminal prosecution of border crossers and asylum seekers, and it may lead to the indefinite detention of “alien families” in ad hoc detention centers, including converted warehouses and tents. The administration will portray this executive order as a triumph, a turning point, but it does nothing to undo the trauma cruelly inflicted on children and families as a result of his “zero tolerance” policy.

Trump never had the authority to separate families in the first place. The parents of these 2300 children were never judged incapable of providing care for their kids, and in the child welfare context, children are only removed from their homes in the presence of alleged abuse or neglect. As Sandy Santana, Executive Director of Children’s Rights, said, “The federal government is deliberately inflicting trauma on children to punish their parents.” The trauma this policy has inflicted on these families will reverberate for years to come and may even interfere with brain development in children, according to research on trauma by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Furthermore, the President’s last-minute reversal does not order the rapid reunification of families, thus continuing the psychological suffering of thousands of children and parents. This crisis is not over until every family is reunited. Disturbingly, this administration initially stated it has no intention of reuniting the 2300 children strewn in shelters across the nation with their parents. Later, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department, said the department was still “awaiting further guidance” in the matter.

While separation may end, it may be replaced with indefinite detention. Historically, family detention centers, which under this administration include military bases, are purported to exhibit egregious living conditions. The detention of children can have severe physical and emotional consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and developmental delays. The parties in the case Flores v. Reno already determined that immigration detention is not an appropriate environment for children, recognizing that children in immigration detention are uniquely vulnerable to harm and should be expeditiously moved to the least restrictive setting. Under this settlement, families can only be detained for up to 20 days. Trump’s executive order directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to renegotiate this agreement in federal court, which will only further extend the trauma inflicted on children.

The administration refuses to acknowledge that there are safe and effective alternatives to family detention. The Family Case Management Program is a less restrictive program which provides asylum seekers with social and legal services to support families and guide them through their immigration cases. The program, which operated in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, was 99% effective in having participants attend their immigration hearings and ICE check-ins. Trump shut this program down in April 2017.

With this executive order, Trump once again exhibits a blatant disregard for the well-being of immigrant families. We must hold this administration accountable, and we cannot stop until every family is reunited and treated with dignity.