Mexican border policy on kids is harsh yet ineffective

A pile of clothes sits on the banks of the Rio Grande river on the US-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas.
A pile of clothes sits on the banks of the Rio Grande river on the US-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. AFP/Getty Images

The Trump Administration seems determined to devise new forms of bureaucratic cruelty for immigrants: The latest policy proposal from the Department of Homeland Security would separate children from their parents at the US-Mexico border if they’re caught trying to enter the country together illegally. The policy is intended as a deterrent, but the plan is bound to backfire, swamping agencies with children while doing nothing to address the root cause of migration. It would be both diabolical and ineffective.

Under the current policy, parents (usually mothers) and their children caught at the border who want to apply for asylum are released together, following a court ruling stating that minors can’t be held in detention. But the administration is considering a new policy that would separate them. The mother would go into an adult detention facility under DHS jurisdiction, while the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Health and Human Services would take custody of the child.


It’s an appalling, inhumane idea. And it would create — deliberately — a new wave of unaccompanied kids that the government would need to shelter, feed, and educate. “With this new policy, the government would be creating unaccompanied minors on purpose by virtue of separating them from their parents. The mother could be subject to immediate removal, who knows? But kids could remain in the government custody for years and years,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit that provides legal representation to unaccompanied children who arrive at the border.

All of which would create an undue shock to social services systems across the United States, at a time when funding for refugee resettlement federal programs is under attack in the Trump administration. About 137,000 kids, or parents traveling with their kids, were captured at the border in 2014.


And even if separating those families weren’t unbelievably cruel, its value as a deterrent strategy is dubious.

The Trump administration is ignoring the context in which these families are arriving. The Northern Triangle in Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — has experienced record levels of violence and the highest homicide rate in the world, while at the same time the gangs committing these crimes enjoy total impunity. Families crossing the border are not economic migrants; they are refugees looking for survival. “And they’re not only coming to the US,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “Central Americans are requesting protections from Mexico and other Latin American countries as well.” Indeed, the United Nations has documented the massive exodus. And indicators confirm children are fleeing real danger: 73 percent of unaccompanied minors who go to immigration court with a lawyer win the right to stay here legally. If the Trump administration forces mothers to choose between an unsafe home for their children or potential separation at the border, their choice might not be the one officials seem to expect.

Such a dehumanizing policy would likely push many of the migrants fleeing from violence into more dangerous situations, with smugglers charging them more money to use far more treacherous crossing routes and exposing them to more horrors and potential abuse. Concerted US investment in stability and economic growth in Central America, rather than building walls and hiring more border agents, will do much more to reduce the flow of migrants at the southern border.