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‘Whatever’ isn’t an option for immigrant children

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The phone rang at 1 a.m. on a Friday morning earlier in May – a child recently separated from his family at the border needed a home. For the sixth time that week, the staff at Bethany Christian Services’ Refugee and Immigrant program answered the call. “Jose” was just three years old, sick with chicken pox, and had clearly been crying for quite some time.

Earlier that week, Jose and his mother presented themselves to U.S. Border Patrol officials at a port of entry on the southern border. She feared gang violence and threats in her native Guatemala. Escaping this terrifying existence consumed her. Upon arriving in the United States, Jose was taken from her and she was placed in an immigration jail.

{mosads}I wish I could tell you about every immigrant child that Bethany has served, but the sad reality is that Jose’s story is not unique. In fact, Bethany is currently serving hundreds of children just like Jose – unaccompanied and separated children who miss their families and need a loving home.

Bethany Christian Services is a global child social services organization headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a presence in 36 states and 15 countries. Founded in 1944, our mission is to protect and enhance the lives of children and families around the world – keeping families together and bringing families together.

Jose and thousands of children like him are the faces, names and stories impacted by recent actions taken by the Trump administration to reduce the number of families and children crossing the southern border. These policies include “referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution,” as Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a recent speech. These “zero tolerance” measures mean that more parents will end up in criminal jails while their children are placed into group homes or foster care.

John Kelly acknowledged in a recent interview with NPR that family separation “could be a tough deterrent” to illegal immigration. In that same interview, the White House chief of staff argued that it wasn’t cruel and heartless to take children like Jose away from their parents because, “The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”

Community organizations like Bethany stand ready to help these children find loving, temporary foster homes. We were disturbed, however, to learn what Kelly meant when he said “whatever”—and it isn’t what is best for children.

Citing an email sent to staff at the Pentagon, the Washington Post recently revealed that the Trump administration is preparing to hold immigrant children at military bases. Unaccompanied immigrant children or children who have been separated from their parents by the government could be housed at four military bases currently being reviewed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Being ripped away from parents is already a significant trauma for children. Staff at Bethany and the foster families we partner with are picking up the pieces caused by distressing separations every day. The trauma will only be compounded by placements outside of a loving home.

The Trump administration has frequently complained that America’s asylum laws are “dangerous loopholes” and placing “our communities at risk,” as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen lamented last week to members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Trump administration officials are testifying Wednesday before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to review one of these so-called “loopholes”—The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act—a law that allows vulnerable children to have their stories fairly heard by our legal system.

These actions are not consistent with America’s history or our values. Instead, they undermine protections for vulnerable children. The American people have long demonstrated their commitment to protecting people facing persecution. These immigrants have become integral members of our communities, our neighbors, and our friends.

As Congress and the Trump administration consider actions to curb the numbers of children and families seeking refuge in the United States, I urge them to remember Jose’s story and the stories of millions who came before him.

Jose’s story is ultimately one about a child – not a loophole – but a child who matters to us and a child who matters to God.

Chris Palusky is president/CEO of Bethany Christian Services

Tags Jeff Sessions John Kelly Kirstjen Nielsen

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