EDITORIAL: Family Separation at Border Must Stop!

Over 10,000 children are being held in U.S. detention centers as a result of Trump's inhumane 'zero tolerance' policy.

By Elias C. Herrera

The policies currently in place that deal with unauthorized border crossings, immigration, and asylum seekers must be reformed and made to conform to international law and basic humanity. In March of 2017, the Trump administration started a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy for people that were crossing the southern border of the United States without authorization, kicking off one of the most morally corrupt and reprehensible actions of Trump’s presidency (Hirschfeld Davis, Shear, & Benner, 2018).

Shortly thereafter, the Trump administration would expand that program to those that were seeking asylum, regardless of how they approached the US border (Hirschfeld Davis, Shear, & Benner 2018). This policy has led to a deplorable incarceration for thousands of children who automatically become ‘unaccompanied minors’ when their parents are jailed for allegedly entering the country in violation of U.S. immigration laws. (Danner, 2018).

Despite the fact that asylum seekers are legally entitled to approach and cross the border to request asylum, Trump has created two problems from one in order to ‘punish immigrants and asylum seekers,’ in an effort to deter both immigrants and asylum seekers from coming to the United States. Criticism of Trump’s policy has only increased as the details of its outcome and scope have been publicly reported and acknowledged.

As of the writing of this piece, thousands of children have been jailed, hundreds have been lost, and at least two have died while in the custody, a custodianship considered by many to be inherently inhumane (Fetters, 2019). The New York Times (Haag, 2019) recently reported that several thousand detained children claim to have been sexually abused while in facilities contracted by the U.S. government to house them indefinitely after being cruelly separated from their parents.

There are two specific policy approaches that could be utilized to establish a more functional—and humane—immigration system and streamline the asylum-seeking process. The first approach would be to expand outreach—now nearly non-existent—to would be immigrants and asylum seekers in their country of origin. The second possible solution would be to have a much more robust and well-funded support structure created at the US border so that asylum seekers and immigrants have a speedier, safer, and easier access to path which moves into and through the US immigration system.

Helping Families in Their Country of Origin

The U.S. should provide an outreach component to identify and process qualified refugee children and families in their country of origin. The policy called the Central American Minors refugee program was an Obama era initiative, which was instituted in 2008 and put into place as part of an effort to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to reduce dangerous migration patterns used by refugee minors and families (Sheer 2014).

CAM, however, was eventually discontinued because immigration processing officials in the U.S. claimed they could not find enough children who actually qualified for asylum and re-settlement in the United States as “refugees.” The term refugee typically refers to victims of oppression from other countries seeking settlement in the United States as politically displaced peoples. It may be difficult to authorize someone as a refugee who is still able to live freely in their country of origin, especially if that country of origin has a CAM camp where they are stationed.

This is perhaps the result of the wording and semantics associated with term “refugee” as it is applied accordance to United States law (Sheer 2014). However, if the Trump administration were to re-institute CAM to service not just displaced minors but also their families and broaden the definition of refugee per current U.S. law, which refers to refugees as anyone “feeling that a return to their nation of origin would lead to persecution,” then a potential solution to the crisis arises.

Some would undoubtedly oppose this as sort of “expansionist” take on “Refugeedom” and argue that all migrants, regardless of refugee status, would suddenly swell the re-instated CAM program, leading it to become defunct again as a failed component of an already overburden bureaucracy. However, the success of European resettlement refugee programs can be used as a counter-example to this, as small European countries have managed to resettle far larger amounts of immigrants successfully.

By instituting these local programs in Central American countries, Trump’s troubled and hugely unpopular zero tolerance policy outcomes can be completely avoided and, eventually—one can hope— designated an unfortunate episode in America’s past.

Solutions to Help Families at the US Border

Rather than detaining undocumented immigrants for indefinite amounts of time, it would be far more efficient to use technology in order to track applicants through the use of GPS devices, so as to allow them to pursue their lives until their day in court. However, opponents to this strategy rightfully consider this method an inhumane practice as well. But, this method would conceivably reduce or eliminate the need for incarceration and lessen the strain on immigration courts.   

The most crucial issue with the current United States Immigration system is the lack of a sufficient number of immigration judges available to hear and adjudicate immigration and asylum claims (Ramon & O’Shea, 2018). Currently, the immigration courts are swamped with a backlog of immigrant and refugee claims. This is due to a combination of underfunding by the Trump administration, its current zero tolerance position and its delaying tactics at the U.S. border.

“The ABA found that without question the most serious issue facing the immigration courts, and the one with the most significant impact on the speed and quality of case processing, is the lack of resources throughout the entire system”(“The Real Alternatives”). The federal government can address this by hiring more judges and law clerks as well as constructing or allocating more courtrooms to help reduce the currently overwhelming number of caseloads per judge.
Accordingly, the U.S. could simultaneously provide basic legal counsel for those seeking to migrate or claim asylum in the United States (“The Real Alternatives”).

Removing this enormous backlog of cases would allow future cases to be heard in a timely manner and eliminate the need to detain people in facilities long term. The U.S. immigration system must eradicate this practice altogether and must never again employ the inhumane policy of separating families at the border. 


Danner, Chas. (2018, June 17). Separating Families at the Border Was Always Part of the Plan. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/06/separating-families-at-border-was-always-part-of-the-plan.html
Fetters, Ashley. (2019, January 13). The Moral Failure of Family Separation. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/trumps-family-separation-policy-causes-national-outrage/579676/
Haag, Matthew. (2019, February 27) Thousands of Immigrant Children Said They Were Sexually Abused in U.S. Detention Centers, Report Says. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/us/immigrant-children-sexual-abuse.html
Hirschfeld Davis, Julie, and Michael D. Shear. (2018, June 16). How Trump Came to Enforce a Practice of Separating Migrant Families. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/politics/family-separation-trump.html
Ramon, Cristobal and Tim O’Shea. (2018, July 27). Why Hiring More Judges Would Reduce Immigration Court Backlogs. Retrieved from https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/why-hiring-more-judges-would-reduce-immigration-court-backlogs/
Shear, M. (2017, December 21). Obama Approves Plan to Let Children in Central America Apply for Refugee Status. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/01/us/obama-approves-plan-to-let-children-apply-for-refugee-status-in-central-america.html

Elias C. Herrera was born and raised in the County of Los Angeles. He is a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, where his passion and studies are centered on the protection of human and civil rights.


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