Nationwide outrage and protests has grown over the practice of forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, in violation of international human rights law. At least 3,700 immigrant children have been separated from their parents since October and Border Patrol says it has separated more than 2,300 kids since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April. The separated children have been sent to detention facilities in at least 17 states.
It had long been a misdemeanor federal offense to be caught illegally entering the US, punishable by up to six months in prison. However, the administration didn’t always refer everyone caught for prosecution. Those apprehended were swiftly put into immigration proceedings and unless they met the threshold to pursue a valid asylum claim, were quickly deported from the country. The “zero tolerance” policy plan makes no special arrangements for those who claim asylum when apprehended and refers all apprehended for prosecution-thus the increase in family separations. While they will be allowed to pursue their claims and could eventually be found to have a legitimate right to live in the US, they could still already have a conviction for illegal entry.
Outrage grew as images of immigrant children housed in chain-linked cages covered with foil blankets circulated through social media and news outlets. Investigative news source ProPublica obtained audio of children desperately crying for their parents at an immigrant detention facility. ProPublica: “The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream ‘Mami’ and ‘Papá’ over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.” The audio can be hard to listen to for many and sparked mass outrage from both sides of the political parties.
Governors of eight states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Rhode Island, Colorado, New York, North Carolina and Connecticut—said they would either withhold or recall their National Guard troops from the border, in protest of the practice of separating children. The resources in question from each state are relatively small, so the actions a more of a strong symbolic political gesture.
American Airlines and United Airlines have asked the administration to stop transporting immigrant children who have been separated from their families aboard their companies’ planes. American Airlines said in a statement, “We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it.” United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said, “Our Company’s shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world. This policy and its impact on thousands of children is in deep conflict with that mission and we want no part of it.”
On Wednesday, the US President signed an executive order claiming to end the separation of children from their parents at the border, by detaining them together while their legal cases go through the courts. The order does not say where the families will be detained or whether children will continue to be separated from their parents until the facilities are ready. Critics warn the order will lead to the indefinite detention of entire families. The order has not outlined any plans for reuniting children already separated from their families.