Where are the children? Hundreds of border children still separated from families
Anthony David Tovar Ortiz, left, is embraced by a relative after arriving to La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. The 8-year-old was held in a shelter for migrant children in Houston after his mother Elsa Ortiz Enriquez was deported in June 2018 under President Donald Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. Many more refugee children remain separated and in government facilities. | Oliver de Ros / AP

There are those of us who are still furious and the wrath is again growing—the court mandated deadline to reunite kidnapped children with their families has come and gone, and hundreds of refugee children are STILL separated from their families. I recently received an email from the Democratic Attorneys General Association announcing that the the deadline for reunification had passed; that hundreds of children remain separated from their parents may never see them again. The statement went on: “This is horrific, and we cannot let it stand.”

On September 6, the Trump administration proposed new rules to allow for even longer detention of refugee children. A federal judge had already excoriated the Trump government for enacting its draconian zero-tolerance policy with no plan in place to reunite the émigré families.

On the morning of September 7, the national news announced that with Trump’s new plans for detention, families could be held in custody for months, even years awaiting the resolution of their asylum claims. It was also disclosed that as of that date, there were still 497 children waiting to be reunited with their families. Of this number, 14 were below the age of 5.

The same day, the White House issued a report that 416 children were still in federal custody (this is at variance with the above cited number—Who are we to believe?).

Many foresee a gloomy ending for this perverse Trump policy. In fact, University of Texas

psychiatry professor Luis Zayas recently said, “These children will live in hope of reuniting, but mostly they will be forgotten. Considering the vast numbers of children in over 14 states, the government and contract agencies will surely lose records, fail to keep track of parents’ whereabouts, and fail to reunite children with their parents.”

This sordid episode of manifest injustice began when the Trump government implemented its family separation policy on May 7, announcing it would criminally prosecute refugees who crossed the border “illegally” with their children. A huge national and international outcry made Trump retract the policy on June 20, and days later, a federal court stopped the deportation of separated parents and gave the government 20 days to return 2,600 border children.

But the Trump administration had no reunification policy, and for weeks, federal officials worked out of a hastily improvised emergency command center to match up minors with their families. By July 26, about 1,400 children had been reunited with their families, leaving 1,200 in limbo. Subsequently, reunifications slowed, leaving hundreds of children scattered in shelters around the country.

The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit that halted the deportations, recently issued a statement saying that the government was not making serious efforts to reunify the remaining children with their families.

A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief predicts that some children may never see their parents again. They would become permanent orphans. This story has fallen from the front pages amid the multiple serial weekly scandals of the shamed Trump administration.

It seems to be the tactic of the Trump house of distortion to divert attention from a given issue by bursting forth with another attention-grabbing headline. Hence, in the stormy sea of Trump deception, the news simply bobs from one sensationalized wave of lies to the next.

Although the narratives of the children taken from their families slipped from the front pages, the horror of their confinement continued unabated. Many of these violations of human dignity have actually been ongoing for years, stretching back before the administration of Trump.

The government has reportedly destroyed the records of many families, making the reunification process much more difficult. There are 106 detention centers across the country where they are being held. Aside from the 2,600 children that were the subject of immediate reunification, there remain 11,800 others held across the U.S. Thousands of parents are still waiting just to locate their children.

Despite the massive demonstrations that have recently been held, the Trump administration is using every trick in the book to sidestep justice. Hundreds of parents have been deported without their children; the parents of 366 children have been summarily shipped out of the country.

In a host of cases, separated children have been sent all over the continental United States far from the point of separation in the Southwest. The government, initially, told parents whose children were found that they would have to pay transportation costs—plane fare—to have their children returned to them. These plane fares typically were over $1,000, with many nearing $2,000. This was too much for a federal judge, who recently ordered recently that the government pay the costs of reuniting families.

In another example, the administration claimed it was “reunifying” families by sending children to distant relatives they have never even met—not their parents they were with when crossing the border.

Mothers and children are considered “together” if they are held in the same gigantic facility, such as an abandoned big-box store or strip mall, even if they are locked in separate cages with no contact or even access to one another. In the world of ICE, 10-year-old girls locked in a giant cage are considered “not separated” from their mothers who are in cages somewhere else in the facility.

The next deception surrounds the term “unaccompanied minor.” Adults crossing the border are  automatically charged with a crime, a criminal misdemeanor, and the children they have with them are separated and summarily classified as unaccompanied minors. Trump’s tricks never end.

The Trump administration has no real plan for reunification of families. There are no matching case files or tracking numbers for the children. One expert opined that for some families, a simple photo may be all the documentation that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services has to go on to reunite them.

The deadline of July 10 for 101 children under 5 years old to reunited with their families was not met by the government with various excuses being proffered. The administration request for an extension of time was, according to the ACLU, just a stall to increase the suffering of the families. The deadline for the reunification of children 5 years of age and older was July 26, and that deadline was also not met, with one in three children still separated.

It has been reported that private contractors are making millions of dollars for housing the hapless children. These contractors, these human vultures, are making huge amounts of money from the suffering of helpless, traumatized children and their equally traumatized families.

The very act of separating children from their parents is, legally, torture in itself.  Under federal law, which has adopted the United Nations definition, torture is: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as… punishing him or her for an act he or she or a third person…has committed or is suspected of having committed.”

The key words are “severe pain or suffering…physical or mental…intentionally inflicted…” The Trump administration’s actions meet all the criteria for torture as defined by the U.N. Added to the torture of being separated from their parents is the additional outright torture of lack of edible food or potable water, forced lack of sleep and sexual abuse (there are allegations of sexual abuse of border refugees by U.S. border officials over the years).

The issue was amplified by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who cited a case in which federal officials turned eight refugee children over to human traffickers. Portman reiterated his concern in an April 24 PBS Frontline special entitled “Trafficked in America,” which documented the plight of eight children who were forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio.

Moreover, there is the issue of the emotional trauma, that is said to be in many cases irreparable and irreversible, which is being sustained by the children for every day that they are separated from their families.

This country has a so-called president who uses as pawns thousands of refugee children—some as young as 8 months old and others also too young to remember their parents’ names—to demagogically bully Congress to fund a border wall, a so-called president who is quiescent with Black and Brown youth being gunned down in the streets of this nation’s cities, with infantssuffering untold health conditions and drinking poisoned drinking water in Flint, with families without electrical power in Puerto Rico and unable to leave the island, with Native Americans subjected to hundreds of years of broken promises while he pompously continues to rule with imbecilic Tweets to encourage and maintain his base.

The foregoing illustrates how the Trump gang of criminals is trying to make sane and normalize what under other circumstances would seem perverse and insane. Trump, like other tyrannical despots before him, is gambling to see how much the world and the country will tolerate.

As Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said, “We must not consider this matter settled until every last child is returned to their families.”


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He was an organizer and delegate to the First and Second Intercontinental Indian Conferences held in Quito, Ecuador and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Recently, he has been an active participant and reporter in the Standing Rock struggle in North Dakota. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war of the late 20th century. Albert is also a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee and a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues. He is the recipient of several Eagle Awards by the Tennessee Native American Eagle Organization and a former Director of Native American Legal Departments and a Tribal Public Defender.