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How keeping families intact is dividing America
Immigration officials including Jeff Sessions call separating families a "deterrent," but critics say it counters long-held policies valuing the parent-child bond. - photo by Lois M. Collins
The Trump administration has drawn both ire and praise for implementing policies that at least temporarily remove minor children from parents when they cross America's borders without proper authorization.

Officials claim the practice is a powerful deterrent to illegal immigration, but note it's also necessary because there are not adequate facilities to keep families together in such circumstances.

Critics warn the move is being applied not just to those suspected of being illegal immigrants, but also to those seeking asylum. And they say it goes against America's long history of valuing the family as a unit.

Some also warn that children especially young children will be harmed by forced separation from their parents.

"The administration's policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers," said Jessica Henderson Daniel in a written statement released to the media Tuesday. Daniel is president of the American Psychological Association.

"Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the conditions that led them to flee their countries in the first place," she continued. "The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development.

Separating kids from parents has triggered at least one lawsuit, sparked false accusations about "lost children" who had been in government custody and launched protests like one May 23 at the Capitol that was aimed at officials separating Central American asylum-seekers from their parents at the southwest border.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a Customs and Border Protection official told lawmakers a week earlier that "658 children had been separated from their parents at the border from May 6 to May 19 as the parents face charges. That's in addition to hundreds more who were estimated to have been removed from their parents since October."

Policy shift

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced May 7 that officials would remove minors from their parents if they illegally entered America. He called it a "zero tolerance" illegal immigration stance. The New York Times reported "hundreds of immigrant children have already been separated from their parents at the border since October, and the new policy will result in a steep increase. 'If you dont want your child separated, then dont bring them across the border illegally,'" Sessions said at that time.

"Undocumented immigrants who are stopped by the Border Patrol or customs officers will be sent directly to a federal court by the United States Marshals Service. Children will be placed in the custody of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, administration officials said the same office that handles minors who show up at the border unaccompanied by an adult. The adult immigrants would be sent to detention centers to await trial," the article said.

Talking to NPR in May, White House chief of staff John Kelly said a policy of separating the children and parents would provide a "tough deterrent."

Members of the administration have repeatedly said they believe that some would-be immigrants use asylum claims unlawfully to bypass legal immigration requirements. Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Agency says it believes "that everyone has a right to seek asylum from persecution, and we do our best to protect those who need it."

VOX has noted the Justice Department's role is central in immigration and that illegal border crossing prosecutions "make up a majority of all federal convictions. The litigation the (Justice Department) chooses to file can help tilt the balance between state, federal, and local governments as the three try to negotiate who gets to help or has to help enforce immigration law. Perhaps most importantly, the part of the deportation process that has so far posed the biggest obstacle to mass deportation the immigration court system is under Sessions control."

Of Sessions, VOX writes, "While his peers in the Republican Party tried to strike a balance between 'good' legal immigrants and 'bad' illegal ones, he has always taken a skeptical attitude toward immigrants and immigration."

Children being removed from parents are "considered unaccompanied minors. Under U.S. law, they cannot be deported right away. They are placed with sponsors, who are typically close relatives such as parents, siblings or aunts and uncles that live in the USA. About 10 percent of the time, the minors are placed with people who aren't related to them," according to USA Today.

Those policies date back to President George W. Bush's administration.

Divided over families

Keeping families intact has a longstanding role in complicated U.S. policy issues. Family is at the heart, in fact, of America's child protection system. Even in cases where parents are believed to have harmed or neglected a child, the government places high value on family reunification and its child welfare policies are built around at least attempting to mend parent-child bonds. "When children must be removed from their families to ensure their safety, the first goal is to reunite them with their families as soon as possible," notes

Questions of keeping families intact come up in immigration cases. Besides decisions about whether families stay together when they cross a border without documentation, officials wrestle with whether families can reunite once some members have gained legal status as immigrants. President Donald Trump refers to that as "chain migration." Advocates call it "family reunification."

"Since this country revised our immigration laws in 1965, family reunification has been the biggest piece of our permanent immigration system,'" Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Deseret News in January.

"It's a long tradition in our country and it's pretty new in the policy world to be questioning the value of family migration. There have been debates about specific categories and numbers, but I think the level of skepticism is something that's new.

The New York Times reported last month on another immigration policy change that has affected families: "With few exceptions, the United States has historically treated immigration violations as civil, rather than criminal, offenses, and thus parents have not typically been separated from their children when they enter the legal system."

The article says the American Civil Liberties Union hopes to secure a "nationwide injunction against the practice. The organization argues in its lawsuit that it is a violation of due process to separate parents and children simply as a means to deter illegal immigration. Only parents who are abusive or unfit to care for their children can legally have them taken away, the suit argues."

Several organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Child Welfare League of America, which signed an affidavit to go with the ACLU filing, "strongly urged the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, not to break up families," the Times reported. Separation from family leaves children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, no matter what the care setting. In addition, traumatic separation from parents creates toxic stress in children and adolescents that can profoundly impact their development, the groups said.

While the lawsuit is pending, the rhetoric surrounding family reunification reached a "new boiling point" over the Memorial Day weekend, the Associated Press reported, between Trump and his critics. The AP speculated on the timing of the latest flare-up over government immigration policies.

"It all comes just in time for the midterm elections as Republicans and Democrats try to rally core voters by pointing fingers at one another," the AP reported. "Trump won the presidency promising to build a wall along the southern border and end illegal immigration, and the White House believes stressing the same issues will drive voters to the polls and help the GOP hang on to their majorities in the Senate and House."