Child abuse is now part of Amer­ica's of­fi­cial im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Michael Paarl­berg

It’s im­pos­si­ble to look at the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prac­tice of mi­grant fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion and see it as any­thing other than what it is: in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized child abuse. By now, there have been real hor­ror sto­ries: par­ents hear­ing their chil­dren scream­ing in the next room; a man who com­mit­ted sui­cide when his three-yearold was taken from him; chil­dren kept in what Ore­gon sen­a­tor Jeff Merkley de­scribed as a “dog ken­nel”; a woman be­ing told by a bor­der pa­trol agent: “You will never see your chil­dren again. Fam­i­lies don’t ex­ist here. You won’t have a fam­ily any more.”

Enough of these sto­ries have come out that any ques­tions of them be­ing iso­lated in­ci­dents have been put to rest. These are not ac­tions by rogue agents. They are sys­tem­atic, and they come straight from the top. In­deed, at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions has ac­knowl­edged as much, an­nounc­ing in May a pol­icy which had al­ready been in prac­tice for much of the past year.

Adults caught cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally are trans­ferred to crim­i­nal cus­tody to be pros­e­cuted for that crime – a mis­de­meanor – in­clud­ing those ex­er­cis­ing their le­gal right to seek asy­lum. Their chil­dren are taken from them and placed in the cus­tody of the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices as “un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors”. Ses­sions has equated par­ents with hu­man traf­fick­ers: “If you are smug­gling a child, then we will pros­e­cute you and that child will be sep­a­rated from you as re­quired by law.”

The trauma caused by these sep­a­ra­tions for par­ents and their chil­dren is not an un­for­tu­nate byprod­uct of a nec­es­sary le­gal process; it is the whole point. It is a pun­ish­ment de­signed to be as grotesque as pos­si­ble in or­der to scare other mi­grants. The use of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion as a mi­gra­tion de­ter­rent was dis­cussed a year ago by Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials be­fore it was for­mally adopted; since then, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has bragged that the sep­a­ra­tions have led to a drop in bor­der cross­ings. This is, in fact, not true, based on DHS’s own num­bers, as Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out.

That such a pol­icy is both un­nec­es­sar­ily cruel and in­ef­fec­tive in its stated pur­pose sug­gests it is sim­ply sadism for its own sake, aimed at a pop­u­la­tion Don­ald Trump does not re­gard as hu­man. It speaks to this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s blind faith that mak­ing the mi­gra­tion process as de­hu­man­iz­ing as pos­si­ble will make it less at­trac­tive, as if the mi­gra­tion process isn’t un­pleas­ant enough as it is for those des­per­ate enough to un­der­take it.

Leav­ing one’s coun­try to seek asy­lum in an­other is not a de­ci­sion made lightly. Those cross­ing the south­ern bor­der to­day are over­whelm­ingly Cen­tral Amer­i­can, flee­ing spi­ral­ing vi­o­lence caused by the very gangs Trump has de­clared mor­tal en­e­mies of the US. Fam­i­lies leave with their life sav­ings, travers­ing Mex­ico through a net­work of preda­tory smug­glers and a crim­i­nal cot­tage in­dus­try set up to rip off mi­grants, usu­ally reach­ing the bor­der with noth­ing. In Mex­ico, I spoke with one Gu­atemalan diplo­mat who said that many women take birth con­trol pills be­fore leav­ing be­cause they ex­pect to be raped along the way.

Yet to this ad­min­is­tra­tion, asy­lum is not a valid le­gal process, it is a loop­hole that needs to be closed – in­clud­ing, most re­cently, for vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence – and chil­dren are use­ful tools for do­ing so. This is why we do not see much hand-wring­ing from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion over such sto­ries. They want word to get out, be­liev­ing that they will serve as a warn­ing to fu­ture wouldbe mi­grants. The sui­cide of Marco An­to­nio Muñoz, who hanged him­self in a Texas jail af­ter be­ing sep­a­rated from his wife and tod­dler son, is this pol­icy work­ing as it was in­tended.

By declar­ing the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem “bro­ken”, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion at­tempts to jus­tify any and all mea­sures they seek to use, up to and in­clud­ing child trauma and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture of par­ents. None of this is un­avoid­able. It is the prod­uct of in­di­vid­ual politi­cians look­ing for cre­atively per­verse ways to ex­ploit a hot but­ton is­sue, im­mi­gra­tion. The im­mi­gra­tion de­bate as it stands to­day is a false di­chotomy be­tween “open bor­ders” and “closed bor­ders”. Nei­ther ex­ist, only a com­plex set of laws and en­force­ment mech­a­nisms which are at the dis­cre­tion of elected of­fi­cials. All coun­tries reg­u­late mi­gra­tion us­ing a va­ri­ety of pol­icy in­stru­ments. Vot­ers need to de­cide whether child abuse should be con­sid­ered a valid one.

To this ad­min­is­tra­tion, asy­lum is not a valid le­gal process, it is a loop­hole that needs to be closed

Javier Tapia, five, and his brother, Char­lie Tapia, seven, orig­i­nally from Mex­ico, stand out­side a fed­eral de­ten­tion cen­ter hold­ing mi­grant women on 9 June in Wash­ing­ton state. Pho­to­graph: Karen Ducey/Getty Im­ages

‘Leav­ing one’s coun­try to seek asy­lum in an­other is not a de­ci­sion made lightly.’ Pho­to­graph: Fred­eric J Brown/ AFP/Getty Im­ages

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