After repeatedly, and falsely, claiming that he was powerless to stop the separation of children from their parents at our southern border, President Donald Trump finally signaled on Wednesday that he will end his administration’s heartless policy. But make no mistake: The humanitarian crisis in our immigration system is far from over.
Let’s not forget how we got here. The Trump administration directed immigration officials to take children away from parents who cross the border illegally, both as a draconian effort to deter people from seeking asylum here and as a cynical political ploy designed to divide. They took innocent children hostage for their own selfish purposes, and left a stain on America’s conscience that no executive order can erase. (That is particularly true of an executive order that may merely replace one cruel policy with another, resulting in the indefinite internment of families.)
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has offered no plan for reuniting the children it has imprisoned with their parents. And, to be frank, I have no faith in the people who decided to put children in cages — and who then repeatedly lied about their own policy — to enforce our immigration laws in a more humane way going forward.
In particular, I believe that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has consistently misled the American people by falsely claiming that no such policy existed, lacks the trustworthiness and moral authority necessary to fix this mess. Regardless of any new policy, she must resign immediately.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress must stop shirking their responsibility and join a united Democratic caucus in taking legislative action to make sure the victimization of innocent children is never again repeated, by this administration or any other.
What’s more, it’s important to understand that family separation isn’t just an issue along our southern border. Our immigration system has failed far too many innocent children in communities across the country.
Today, more than 4 million children in the United States live with at least one parent who is not a legal immigrant. The vast majority of these children are U.S. citizens — every bit as American as my own two sons, Mason and Sam. Yet they live under the constant threat that one or both of their parents might just disappear without so much as an explanation.
Imagine being a second-grader in a small town in America, coming home from school one day to find your 2-year-old brother sitting on your living room floor — alone, unfed and crying — and your parents gone without a trace. It’s happened across the country as parents are swept up in immigration enforcement raids and detained without the opportunity to make arrangements for child care. In some cases, children have gone days without even knowing what happened to their parents, let alone being reunited.
With the Trump administration intent on stepping up Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and other aggressive enforcement actions, it’s more important than ever that we protect the children who often wind up as collateral damage.
That’s why, in addition to the Keep Families Together Act, I have a bill called the HELP Separated Children Act that would restore some basic humanity to our immigration enforcement process.
Foremost, it would cement in law the principle that no child should ever be left abandoned as a result of an immigration enforcement proceeding. Parents should have the opportunity to make phone calls to arrange for child care. And, what’s more, parents should have the opportunity to speak with their kids — to comfort and reassure them, and to make sure they know how they’ll be taken care of while their case is being resolved.
My bill would make sure that parents can take part in family court proceedings affecting their children and that children aren’t forced to serve as translators in immigration proceedings involving their parents.
In cases where a parent is deported, my bill would make sure that these parents are able to coordinate their departures with their children. And in all cases, it would make it clear that immigration enforcement agencies must consider the best interests of children in deciding how to treat their parents.
Immigration can be divisive. But this bill is something we can all agree on. In fact, the last time the Senate attempted to take on immigration reform, a previous version of this idea became the only amendment to pass by a unanimous bipartisan vote, with sponsorship from progressives and conservatives alike.
We need a smarter, more effective and more humane approach to immigration policy — not to mention more truthful and compassionate people in positions responsible for implementing it. Surely, however, we can start with the principle of treating every child in this country with the same care and consideration we would offer to our own.
Tina Smith, D-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.