No, family detention centres are not like “summer camps”

Some parents will be separated from their children forever. And the Trump administration is displaying a chilling lack of empathy. 

As more details emerge, it is becoming almost certain that some of the children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” border policy will never see them again.

Even if they are all reunited, the suffering already endured by the 2,700 children removed from their parents between April and June this year can never be undone. The 31 July senate judiciary committee on family reunification provided an opportunity for immigration officials to accept responsibility for their actions, reply to lawmakers’ questions truthfully and show a willingness to fix what can still be undone – but for the most part, the officials did not take it. Instead, an executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compared family detention centres to “summer camps” and suggested that the judge order demanding family reunification was a drain on his organisation’s resources. Even by the standards of the Trump administration, such mendacity and irresponsibility from a public official is astonishing.

On 26 July, the Trump administration alleged it had met the court-ordered deadline for reunifying all children separated from their parents at the border under its zero tolerance policy. This was a lie. At the senate hearing, commander Jonathan White, the official leading the efforts to reunite families, said 711 children had not yet been returned to their parents. The parents of 431 children had been deported without them. White said his team was still trying to contact them. In all likelihood, some of these families will be permanently separated. Hundreds of other parents who were torn from their children by the US government have now been deemed “ineligible” to be reunited with them, perhaps for spurious or questionable reasons.

“So what went wrong?” senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked the panel of representatives from ICE, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). All of the officials were intimately involved in implementing the family separation policy, and yet only White would answer that question.

“What went wrong is children were separated from their parents and designated unaccompanied when in fact they were accompanied,” he replied. The US government was physically tearing apart families apprehended by border control, and then administering children’s immigration claims as though it had done no such thing. In plain terms, the US government separated babies and children from their parents with no thought for how to reunite them again.

Asked by senator Dianne Feinstein about how the government kept track of parents and children once they had been separated, White confirmed that when children were transferred to child detention centres the electronic referral that accompanied them did not even contain their parents’ details. Let that sink in a moment.

As the Washington Post details, in order to comply with the June court order to reunify families, government caseworkers therefore had to sift by hand through the 12,000 case files of children under the care of HSS. First, they needed to distinguish between children who genuinely arrived in the US unaccompanied and those that had been separated from their parents. Then they had to try to find the parents, who might be in criminal or immigration detention, or who may have been released somewhere in the US or deported.

To compound the risk of the government losing track of families, White clarified that even babies did not have their so-called “alien identification number” that links to their case file on their person (a wristband, similar to those used by hospitals, might have been one option). Should two older children end up being associated with the wrong number they might easily correct the slip-up by giving authorities their name, but a baby would be unable to do this. The carelessness is mind-boggling. As senator Patrick Leahy argued, the children’s entertainment venue Chuck E. Cheese has a better system for preventing children from being separated from their parents than the US government.

The rest of the panel repeatedly ducked responsibility for the family separation policy, but the most egregious cases of double-speak came from top ICE official Michael Albence. He suggested that the resources ICE was having to devote to family reunification could have been spent on pressing issues such as illegal drug trafficking. Senator Dick Durbin was quick to point out that the family separation policy, and not the judge’s order ending it, was to blame for ICE’s current predicament. Later, Albence made the infamous comparison between family detention centres and “summer camps”. In case it needs underlining, family detention centres are effectively prisons, in which there have been well-documented cases of sexual abuse and medical neglect.

When senator Mazie Hirono asked if the panel would send their children to family detention centres, given that they are like “summer camps”, Albence said that she was “missing the point”. Jennifer Higgins of USCIS was more visibly uncomfortable with this question. “That’s a difficult question to answer,” she said eventually. “It’s difficult for me to put myself in the position of an individual who takes a dangerous journey in which their child can be harmed…” she continued.

And perhaps that answer does point to an important, broader truth: the Trump administration shows a chilling lack of empathy for the families who are fleeing violence and seeking to exercise their legal right to claim asylum in the US. No one would put their children through so dangerous a journey unless they feel they have no better options, but these government officials refuse to put themselves in immigrants’ shoes. Their answers to the senate committee made clear that the Trump administration was not just criminally incompetent in its handling of family separations, it was completely heartless. 

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.