Despite President Donald Trump’s publicly backpedaling on his threat to restart his widely condemned family separation policy, reports reveal that the administration is vetting plans to revamp the scheme — euphemistically rebranding it as “binary choice.” In reality, this bland term belies a cruel ultimatum to parents at the border: Either be separated from your children indefinitely or waive your child’s rights so they can be sent to jail with you.
A choice between family separation and family detention is no choice at all. As cruel as separation is, children simply do not belong in prison. A number of pediatric associations agree that the effects of detention, including family detention, are uniquely traumatizing for children and can cause irreparable, lifelong harm.
The Trump administration’s record on family separation hints at what a “binary choice” would look like in practice: parents forced to make split-second decisions in coercive conditions and without legal advice — probably after spending several days in dirty tent camps and freezing cells.
I have worked with refugees in El Paso for almost a decade, meeting thousands of families and hearing countless stories of the rape, torture and murder that forced them to flee their home countries. This job makes you familiar with tragedy.
But the trauma inflicted by the Trump administration’s family separation policy has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This is why it’s unfathomable that — as the first anniversary of Trump’s executive order, which supposedly ended family separations, approaches — the very same administration is considering circumventing the will of the courts and disregarding the will of the people by re-implementing this horrific practice.
Last summer, after the courts ordered an end to the family separation policy, I watched more than 300 mothers and fathers be reunited with their children at the shelter where I work. Many were toddlers who regarded their parents with wariness and uncertainty instead of recognition and relief.
I’d expected a brighter tone, but the reality was more somber; children and parents alike appeared shellshocked as they tried to adjust to the new normal. I listened to a 5-year-old girl, coloring furiously, tell me in a singsong voice how her “papi” had left her all alone because she thought he didn’t love her enough. Some brooding kids wouldn’t look their parents in the eye, angry and blaming them for a separation that was far beyond their parents’ control. Other children clung to their parent’s legs, refusing to let them out of their sight.
After the horrifying images of separated children began flooding the country last summer, causing nationwide shock and outrage, family detention might at first appear to be the better alternative to family separation. However, the reality of detaining families together more closely resembles a concentration camp than a safe haven.
Family detention exists in a limited capacity now. But allowing the Trump administration to implement “binary choice” as a policy would greatly expand the practice — placing more children in detention camps, probably for longer periods.
At a family detention camp in New Mexico, I met a suicidal 4-year-old whose face was covered in bloody, self-inflicted scratches. Every time she and her mother walked past the drainage ditch — running along the chain-link and barbed-wire fence that enclosed them — this little girl would beg her mother to get in the water. She didn’t want to swim. She wanted the “crocodillos” to eat them so they could go to heaven and escape that place. Another young child had to be restrained by his mother because he kept running full-speed into metal lockers. He was covered in bruises.
I have seen numerous heartbroken mothers break down in family detention camps and give up on their asylum cases, despite knowing they’d be deported back to danger. They couldn’t face spending one more day, let alone months, with their children subjected to the psychological torture of family detention.
This is the fate “binary choice” would force on vulnerable children and families: brutal separation or traumatic imprisonment.
Working alongside volunteers and pro bono attorneys over the past year, my colleagues and I have done our best to advise separated parents on their “choices.” But under this administration, there is no good advice, no real answers and no honest choices.
Parents keep blaming themselves, saying that maybe they would have been reunited had they signed the form the “right” way. Could they change their answers? Could we help them? There were other, less legalistic, questions too: Would their children be able to understand they made that “choice” to protect them, not because they didn’t love them? Would their children ever stop blaming them? Would they ever be able to stop worrying that they made the wrong choice?
The truth is there is no right choice when the options are bringing your child to prison with you or signing your child away to strangers indefinitely. Family detention through “binary choice” is a sinister, ironic twist that merely extends the horrors of family separation instead of ending them. As Americans — and as mothers, daughters, fathers and sons — we cannot let those horrors repeat themselves.