New round of family separations at border will be another disaster

New round of family separations at border will be another disaster
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Here we go again. Asked to comment on a possible new family separations policy, President Donald Trump said on Saturday, “We’re looking at everything that you could look at when it comes to illegal immigration.”  He confirmed that his administration is considering plans that would resume family separations at the southern border.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that, in an effort to reduce illegal crossings, the government is weighing offering asylum-seeking migrants what it calls the “binary choice” option. After about three weeks in immigration detention together, parents could choose to keep their children with them as their case proceeds, which could take months or years – or opt to give up their kids to relatives or a guardian.


Under the terms of the Flores settlement, a court agreement that limits the amount of time that kids can stay in detention to 20 days, this proposal would be legal. That doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Actually, either of these “options” would be cruel for the families involved. 

It would be forcing a potentially life-altering decision on Central American parents who have already been traumatized by gangs, violence, and persecution in their home countries. It is likely that some parents would agree to give up their children out of desperation, without fully understanding the consequences of their actions, or that they would be coerced into doing so.

And the Trump administration already has a terrible record of caring for immigrant children in their custody, with credible reports of abuse and inhumane conditions at migrant shelters.

The administration’s original policy of family separations, which took at least 2,500 children from their parents, was a logistical, political, and humanitarian disaster.  It drew bipartisan and worldwide condemnation, until Trump signed an executive order halting the practice in June. Then a federal judge ordered the reunification of all separated parents and children, a process which is still not complete.

Some migrant parents may never see their children again, because they were deported without their kids

Although that mess hasn’t even been cleaned up yet, with at least 136 kids still not reunited with their parents, it appears that the administration is ready to make a new one.

The administration is weighing the so-called “binary choice” option because illegal border crossings are up. According to Department of Homeland Security data, August saw a 38 percent increase in migrant family members arrested and charged with illegal entries.

Trump feels that the way to deal with this crisis is with a new family separation policy. “If they feel there will be more separation, they won’t come,” he told reporters on Saturday. The fact that families are still arriving at the border from Central America belies this assertion; if the threat of family separation were an effective deterrent to illegal entries, we wouldn’t be in this situation again.

Instead the U.S. is in the midst of another spike in illegal crossings by families at the southern border. Yet there isn’t sound evidence that deterrence strategies work. A July study by the Center for American Progress found that both family detention and separation policies “have not deterred families from coming to the United States in the past — and are unlikely to do so in the future.” The director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute has noted  that “the reasons people are fleeing the region are enough to overcome severe deterrence policies.”

A better way for the administration to deal with the influx of migrants at our southern border would be increased investment and cooperation with Central American governments, to help stabilize their societies. What we don’t need is a return to an ineffective policy that was very unpopular the first time around. A June CNN poll found that two-thirds of Americans were against separating migrant parents from their children at the border. 

The Trump administration’s “binary choice” proposal will lead to more heartbreak and suffering for migrant families. Separating vulnerable children from their parents was bad policy and politics before – and it is bad policy and politics now.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.