Kirstjen Nielsen will forever be the face of one of the ugliest chapters in American history — the forced separation of migrant families at the Mexican border, and the detention of children torn from their families. She presided over the operation while initially denying it existed.
Nielsen is gone now, forced to resign as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security before she could be fired by tweet. But President Donald Trump, who suspended forced separation in June amid widespread condemnation, wants to bring it back. That cannot happen.
Forced separation was a horrifying spectacle. It traumatized parents and children. Imagine not knowing where your child is. And a child, not knowing whether he or she would see a loved one again. Many kids later reunited with their families remain tormented. Some were abused during confinement. Now federal officials say they can’t identify thousands of separated children, more than previously believed, and might need up to two years to do so. That’s unconscionable. The government must use whatever resources it needs to track down these kids for possible reunification. Some migrant parents sent back to their home countries still await their children’s return.
Destroying lives cannot be what we as a nation do. When we rip children from parents, we betray the moral promise that made America a land of hope and tarnish our country on the world stage.
We understand Trump’s frustration with illegal immigration. It has been an intractable problem for years. He had the contemptible hope that his separation policy would deter families from coming to the United States. But it hasn’t. That’s because life at home for many of them is intolerable; the only way to escape endemic violence and systemic poverty is to leave.
Many migrants are not trying to cross the border illegally; actual illegal crossings are historically low. The spike in arrests has been driven by those presenting themselves as asylum cases and asking to have their claims adjudicated. The system is overwhelmed, and on Monday, a judge blocked Trump’s attempt to keep asylum-seekers in Mexico while their cases are heard.
Solving this problem will likely require a combination of steps, but it can never include forced separation. Democrats have pointed out the flaws in Trump’s approach, but have not come up with a comprehensive solution themselves. That’s not helping us find a path, either.
Stabilizing the nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is essential to stem the flow, though Trump has vowed to cut aid to them. Adjudicating asylum claims more quickly, whether by hiring more judges or some other steps, is imperative.
Trump’s new acting DHS secretary, Customs and Border Patrol head Kevin McAleenan, is reportedly considering a plan to give asylum-seekers the option of being separated from their children or going into long-term detention with them. It’s a perverse Hobson’s choice; a 1997 court ruling prohibits the long-term detention of migrant children.
Our endless immigration nightmare has endured for far too long. But cleaving families cannot be part of the solution. It’s a despicable practice for migrants and for our nation. We can, and must, do better — for them and for ourselves. — The editorial board