One year ago, on April 6, the United States rolled out its zero-tolerance policy toward families seeking protection within our borders. The policy codified the practice of family separation and was followed by heart-wrenching stories of young children torn from their parents and put in cages. By June, bowing to public outrage, the U.S. government retracted zero-tolerance. Tragically, while the policy has ended, the practice has not.
Today children — often infants and toddlers — continue to be ripped from their parents’ arms. And of the thousands of children who were separated during the original crisis, we still do not know that every child has been reunited with a parent or guardian.
In just the last several months, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has identified 10 children in our care who have been recently separated from their parents at the border. Among them was an infant, just 8 months old, who was separated from his mother on Christmas Eve. I can’t begin to understand the rationale for such a cruel separation, but I can imagine the grief of the mother and the helplessness of the baby, cut from his primary source of love, nourishment and comfort.
Another child who came into our care was a 1-year-old girl separated from her father. As a mother of a 1-year-old girl, I can imagine my own daughter, terrified and tearful, standing in a detention facility, wondering when she might see me or her father again.
In another time, I could have been one of these children. My family emigrated to the U.S. when I was 9 months old. But, instead of separating me from my parents, America welcomed me and my family with open arms. Back then, for immigrants like us — escaping war, violence and persecution — America was a beacon of hope and opportunity, not a place of hostility and imprisonment.
To think that America, the land of the free, is ushering in another April stained by the separation of vulnerable children and families is almost unfathomable. But the data from LIRS case files and the stories from our caregivers bear the sad truth: Despite the reversal of zero-tolerance and fading media coverage, family separation at our border remains a heartbreaking reality today. Since zero-tolerance was “repealed,” at least 245 children have been ripped away from their families.
Indeed, the reversal of the 2018 family separation policy has done little to curb current practices. This comes as no surprise to LIRS. In December 2017, several months before the zero-tolerance policy took effect, we published the report “Betraying Family Values,” detailing dozens of instances of family separation at our border. It was a harbinger of the April to come.
Among the children who have experienced separation are 5-year-old Daxany and her 15-year-old brother, Ervin. After being locked in a secure holding cell with their mother for an hour, authorities abruptly forced their mother out of the room. It was the last time they saw her for nearly two months. In that time, Daxany and Ervin were placed in an LIRS foster care program, where Ervin regularly, naturally expressed worry for his mother. He did his best to be strong for his little sister, but case workers report Ervin exhibited signs of trauma.
And then there was 2-year-old Estefany. Estefany was in her mother’s arms when her mother was brutally murdered by gangs. Three months later, her father was also killed. Estefany was taken in by her only living relatives — her aunt and uncle. The family, along with Estefany’s cousin, decided to flee to the United States, where they were apprehended. Even though her uncle had official documentation of her father’s passing and that the aunt and uncle were Estefany’s only living relatives, the family was separated.
It remains up to child-welfare providers like LIRS to continue to sound the alarm and share these eye-opening, heartbreaking stories of the realities we are still seeing. And we call on Congress and the American public to acknowledge the facts as they stand: Children are still being separated from their parents today — and it must stop.
With every passing day, every passing April, we become more and more complicit in one of the most barbaric, immoral, and anti-American embarrassments in our history. And this stain on the American conscience will not fade until we have proof that every child separated by the U.S. government has been reunified with their parent or guardian — and a guarantee that family separation will no longer be carried out on American soil.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah serves as President & CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (Twitter: @LIRSorg), which was one of just two organizations called upon by the government to reunify families following the separation crisis.