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Column: The travesty of family separation

  • Detroit Free Press illustration -- Rick Nease

For the Valley News
Published: 11/21/2020 10:10:19 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 10:10:04 PM

During their second debate, Joe Biden criticized Donald Trump for separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border. Because many parents were repatriated — “sent back to where they came from” — or sent to camps over the border, there are now more than 500 children whose parents have not been located and who have spent up to two years as wards of our country. Trump has belittled the effect of this separation on the children, saying they are “well-cared for” in “beautifully run” facilities. Since some of my taxpayer dollars were presumably used in this project, I find it necessary to examine my role as a citizen in the context of my government’s action.

The cruel separation of children from their parents, as a deliberate policy conducted at the U.S. border in order to discourage people from Central America from applying for asylum, could be viewed as a crime against humanity under international law. And while children and parents were occasionally separated at the border in the past, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy resulted in a dramatic increase — some 2,000 children were separated from their parents over a single six-week period in 2018, according to the Trump administration’s own figures.

Kidnapping, removing a child from a parent and restraining the child to prevent parental recovery is a crime in the U.S., whether or not ransom is demanded. (Children may of course be removed from dangerous settings or incompetent parents under state laws that specify the conditions under which that can occur.) But when a child is taken from a foreign national parent by a government employee or contractor, who was “only doing what I was ordered to do,” the kidnapping statutes become problematic. One has to go further up the chain of command to learn where the order came from.

As a taxpayer and a citizen I am complicit in this travesty, and I believe that one of the first orders of business of the new Biden administration should be to apologize to the rest of the world for our actions in this matter. We should then move quickly to identify the parents, support them and reunite them with their offspring. We should pay them a reasonable settlement for what was done — which will help parents cover the expenses of assimilating their children and also reduce the overall cost to the government — and we should assist in the collection of genetic samples that will be necessary in many cases to prove parenthood. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, some children may never rejoin their families. Parents or relatives may never be found.

In the meantime, we will struggle with the conundrum presented by the presence of these children in our country.

They were not born here, they are not naturalized citizens and they will eventually know that they are children of people the Trump administration tried to keep out. Each month that passes will make it harder to find their parents and, if they are returned, less likely that they will be able to communicate in a common language. Moreover, parents who are living in the camps along the border awaiting the determination of their asylum status may not be able to offer an environment for healthy child development.

And what about a few years from now, when these “leftover” children are entering adulthood — that is, if they make it through adolescence alive? Are they still in facilities run by contractors? Or have they been put up for adoption? On whose authority? Who supports their education and health care? Are they citizens by now? Can they work and vote?

There is every likelihood that these young people will be exploited unless we address the risk generated by this atrocity. Clearly a legal structure needs to be created by the Biden administration to accommodate their basic human needs.

Another important task for a new administration should be an investigation into how this atrocity occurred. The records of all those involved should be preserved and inspected for any information that could assist in reuniting the children with their parents, and for deliberation and punitive action, if appropriate. The story of how it all happened should be generated, and those involved should issue apologies, which would be helpful in educating the public and could decrease the risk that a similar debacle will occur again.

O. Ross McIntyre, of Lyme, is a professor emeritus of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and former director of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.




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