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Family separation is not a policy solution

November 21, 2018

President Donald Trump is flirting with idea of family separation 2.0 as a way to deter Central American asylum-seekers from entering this country.

As with this administration’s first attempt at separating families at the border, this new approach would be a draconian mistake.

It would be yet another stain on our moral authority compounded by the failure to address the root causes of why so many Central American families are seeking asylum here.

If our best response to a humanitarian crisis is to force families to choose either long-term detention or long-term separation, then we have already failed ourselves and our neighbors.

Distressed by the sight of the migrant caravan heading northward from Honduras and into Mexico, and frustrated by a surge in family detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border, some officials in the Trump administration have revived the idea of family separation.

The president has expressed openness to it, particularly as a political wedge during the recent election. He heralded it as a great midterm issue for Republicans, rather than seeing it as a humanitarian crisis in need of American intervention and assistance.

This version of family separation would be cleaner. No kids alone in cages, calling for their mothers. But make no mistake, it would be just as cruel.

Families would be detained together for 20 days, after which parents would face a binary choice: Either stay together in detention for months, if not years, or have children placed with relatives as these cases unfold.

It’s legally dubious and a clear attempt to circumvent the Flores Settlement, which says children can’t be held in immigration detention centers for more than 20 days and must be released to the least restrictive environments possible.

This is not, as administration officials characterize it, a matter of “voluntary” separation. It is as “voluntary” as handing over your wallet during an armed robbery.

Border Patrol agents arrested more than 16,000 families at the U.S.-Mexico border in September, and there has been a surge of migrant parents and children since Trump rescinded his first attempt at family separation.

Some administration officials have said this second version of family separation would send a clear signal to asylum-seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. This surge in the apprehension of families has occurred at a time when overall apprehensions are historically low. A better way would address the underlying reasons so many Central Americans are fleeing their countries.

These families, by and large, are fleeing persecution and death in what are, generally, failed states plagued by gang violence. If the choice is to have one’s kids risk death by gang violence or make a perilous northward journey to the most prosperous country the world has ever known, well, it’s easy to see why families would choose to seek asylum or even risk separation.

There are better ways — families released into the community pending adjudication, perhaps with ankle bracelets for the adults.

Understandably, the surge in families heading northward should be a concern of federal officials. The reasons these families come are patently obvious. But separating those families who do make it to our border is not a solution. It would only be another self-created crisis.

If our best solution is separating kids and parents indefinitely, then we do not understand the problem.

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