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OZY Special Briefing: Family Separations at the U.S. Border

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Parents and Children Torn Apart

The Border Separation Dossier

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What’s happening? As of last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy for anyone caught crossing the U.S. border illegally, though previously many first-time offenders weren’t detained. That means that when families are caught at the border, children and their parents are separated — the parents are jailed, and the children, who can’t legally be imprisoned, are sent to holding facilities. In the first two weeks of the new policy, 658 children, including babies, were taken from their parents.

Why does it matter? The U.N. has already formally called out the United States for violating human rights standards over the policy, though U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley responded by pointing out that the human rights records of other member states aren’t spotless. The policy has also attracted protests in more than two dozen cities. “I can’t imagine how any American is not appalled by this,” said one protester, echoing the concerns of many others who believe the practice is a human rights violation.


The process. Most children, when caught crossing illegally, will be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for getting them to a sponsor, a legal relative, a juvenile detention center or foster care. But because so many children have been put into the care of HHS, a backlog has caused overstay at “border stations” meant to house them before they travel on. As of June 2, nearly 300 of the 550 children at border stations had spent more than 72 hours there. These stations often lack proper bedding or separate sleeping rooms for minors. After the children are placed in long-term care, they can go weeks without speaking with their parents.

“Brutal, offensive.” So said U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego this week when describing the policy of separating children and adults. Sabraw refused to throw out an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that argues splitting up asylum-seeking families violates their due process. A request by the ACLU for an injunction of the practice is still pending. While administration officials have said the policy is a necessary deterrent to immigrants, that isn’t working yet either: Border crossings in May were up 160 percent year-on-year, and the number of families crossing was up 435 percent.

Unlikely criticism. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy last month, it fit right in with the Trump administration’s tough stance on immigration. That Democratic leaders urged the administration to keep families intact wasn’t surprising either — including Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who was denied entry to one of the facilities holding children and later compared the structures he saw to “dog kennels.” But this week, President Trump himself tweeted criticism, falsely blaming Democrats “for bad legislation” causing family separations. No such legislation exists — but it nevertheless reveals the president’s desire to distance himself from the politically toxic separations.

Around the world. Migration experts and activists say there’s no other country that’s practicing family separation for immigrants. Even in countries like Australia, which has some of the world’s most extreme policies against illegal migration, families are generally allowed to stay together. Meanwhile, those seeking legitimate asylum in the U.S. are reportedly often being turned away from border checkpoints and told to come back when officials are less busy — and recently, immigration advocates report, they are even being physically kept from setting foot on U.S. soil, which formally triggers their right to seek asylum.


The Truth About Separating Kids, by Rich Lowry at the National Review
"The option that both honors our laws and keeps family units together is a swift return home after prosecution. But immigrant advocates hate it because they want the migrants to stay in the United States."

“Where’s Mommy?”: A family fled death threats, only to face separation at the border, Michael E. Miller and Jon Gerber in The Washington Post
"They were told they’d join their family in a few days, but days turned into weeks. Surrounded by strangers in a strange place, they wondered: Would they ever see their parents again?"


Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking on zero tolerance

"If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally."

Mother is separated from her son at the border

"James was crying a lot and walked away, looking at me as if to say ‘Mom, help me.’."


Misunderstandings. While social media recently exploded with outrage over news that last year HHS “lost” 1,475 undocumented minors, conflating it with the family separation policy, the two stories aren’t related. Instead, the unaccounted-for kids crossed the border unaccompanied, and the department was unable to track them down after placing them — meaning the minors’ relatives may just have chosen to not respond to officials.


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