My children are 3 and 6 years old. They still sometimes get scared of the dark, and it’s my name they call from their beds. If I lose sight of them for a second at the grocery store or the playground, I panic—that instinctual, animal jolt parents know well. If my son somehow wandered away from me on the street, he would not be able to find his way home. He, too, would panic. These are the things I think about when I consider the 545 children, some as young as mine, still separated from their parents by the Trump administration at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a court filing this week by the ACLU.
Even before enacting its “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018, the federal government under Trump had separated more than 1,000 families at the border through a 2017 “pilot program.” In 2018, another 2,800 would be torn apart and detained in horrifying conditions. Six children died in border patrol care. But by the time Trump ended “zero tolerance” with an executive order in July 2018 and a federal judge ordered that families be reunited, about two-thirds of the parents separated from their kids under the pilot program had already been deported to Central America without their children. Without their children. According to this week’s ACLU filing, lawyers are currently unable to locate the parents of 545 children.
“Even before COVID, it was hard enough finding these families,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told CNN. “Some of these children have been separated for years and were just babies at the time.” As the New York Times immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson shared on Twitter: “Part of why the parents of 545 separated kids are ‘unreachable’ is because the government didn’t originally disclose the separations, then fought for months against sharing any more info. By the time details came out under court order, 2 years had passed for some.”
If anyone wondered what life looks like while a historic human rights violation is happening on our soil, it goes on, and all too easily. Confronting it is wrenching, but Trump should have to. In the hours of recent presidential debates and dueling town halls, there has not been a single question about Trump’s systematic separation of brown families at the border. That should change tonight. Both parties have failed to meaningfully address immigration—to stand up for the immigrants, including the undocumented—whose work proved so essential during the pandemic. But Trump has only exacerbated the problem with his repeated dehumanization of immigrants, and specific targeting of the Latinx community by repealing DACA and urging ICE raids and family separation. With both the pilot program and “zero tolerance,” Trump committed an atrocity that will impact thousands of families. He should be made to answer for it.
This week, Dickerson re-shared the story of a caseworker who helped care for children separated from their parents, and struggled to explain that their mom or dad had been deported and a reunion was not imminent. “We would have to say, ‘In many, many days you will be reunited with your parent, but we have to do a lot of paperwork,’” the caseworker said. “The kids would still be like, ‘O.K., when am I going?’ They would start crying and it wasn’t just tears, it was screams.” Was it worth the corporate tax cuts? Was it worth the soul of the country? Trump should be asked about the 545 tonight, and repeatedly.
My father was an immigrant child once, seeking asylum in the U.S. from Cuba. I can see now that while it was a struggle for him and my grandparents to leave the only home they knew and start over entirely, being allowed to do so, together, was a privilege—one now denied to many. “People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer. I just don't know,” Gelernt told NBC. “But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes.”