Eighty-eight days ago, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy at America’s southwest border.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” said Sessions. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you.”
So began one of the darkest periods in recent American history — one that is continuing to this day.
Close to 600 migrant families — forcefully separated by the US government — are still awaiting reunification — a process that has occurred only because a federal court ordered it. More than 400 of those parents have already been deported — without their kids. In some cases, they were coerced, tricked, or misled into “voluntarily” relinquishing the right to reunification.
A frantic effort has now begun to find these deported families and return their children to them, but there is a more than reasonable chance that at least some of these kids will never see their parents again.
For those who have been reunited, the difficult work is just beginning. Children who are the victims of separation, particularly at a young age, are at far greater risk of permanent emotional and mental damage.
We’re already seeing this happen.
According to a report this week in The New York Times, “many of the children released to their parents are exhibiting signs of anxiety, introversion, regression, and other mental health issues.”
One 3-year-old taken from his mother is “pretending to handcuff and vaccinate people around him.” Another “pair of young siblings burst into tears when they spotted police officers on the street.”
There are dozens of stories like this — of children traumatized, confused, angry and acting out because of the psychological torture inflicted upon them by the Trump Administration.
In short, these kids will be dealing with the effects of Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy for the rest of their lives.
And it’s not as if the Trump administration wasn’t aware of this possibility.
Earlier this week the man in charge of reunification of children, Commander Jonathan White, testified to Congress that his office had raised concerns about the abundant dangers of taking children from their parents. According to White, administration officials fell back on the weasel-like explanation that separation was not administration policy.
That family separation would be an obvious consequence of the zero-tolerance policy was not addressed – it was simply acknowledged, in White’s words, as one of several “possible future consequences.” This is perhaps the best and only explanation for how Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen could have inexplicably tweeted back in June, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border.”
Indeed, the administration’s disastrous and prolonged efforts at reunification lay bare the most disturbing element of what the Trump administration has done.
From the moment the zero-tolerance policy was put in place — with full knowledge that it would entail separating children from their parents, as Sessions pointed out at the time — the administration never considered how they would reunite families. One could argue that this was just a case of incompetence crossed with extreme callousness — two obvious hallmarks of the Trump administration.
But the other, even more insidious explanation is that they wanted plausible deniability. If officials had put in place a plan for reunification, it would have been a tacit acknowledgment that administration policy was to separate children from their parents. By not planning for the possibility, the administration could argue that it never intended or planned to separate children — it was just a “possible future consequence” of a policy aimed at deterring border crossings and asylum seekers.
It’s perhaps the best explanation as to why the administration took virtually no proactive steps to prepare for the influx of children that zero-tolerance would create — and failed even to create records of separated families. Doing so would mean recognizing that, by adopting zero tolerance, the Trump administration was subjecting innocent children to a monstrous injustice.
At the end of the day, whatever the reason for the lack of planning and the botched reunification efforts, the bottom line is that the Trump administration was more than willing to kidnap, torture, and allow for the permanent separation of undocumented migrant children from their parents in order to deter people of color from entering the country.
Family separation wasn’t a bug of the policy. It was a feature. It was the entire point.
In the near term, our immediate goal should be to reunite every separated child with his or her parents. But in the long term, another goal should also be clear: Ensure that the monsters responsible for this barbarism are never allowed to live it down.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.