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Trump Administration Intentionally Worsened Conditions For Migrant Children

Many migrants requesting asylum in 2019 have traveled to the border with children. Photo by Jenna Mulligan
Many migrants requesting asylum in 2019 have traveled to the border with children. (Photo: Jenna Mulligan)

“We have proof that the Trump War on Migrant Children was carefully constructed to inflict harm on children and create a humanitarian crisis.”

The Trump administration secretly knew its immigration policies would overflow migrant child shelters, according to a new Washington Post investigative report based on dozens of interviews and internal documents, despite its efforts to portray the humanitarian crisis at the border last Spring as a spontaneous overflow of migrants that left border officials unprepared.

The Post revealed how the administration intended to lengthen bureaucratic procedures, “making it harder for adult relatives of unaccompanied minors to secure the children’s release from U.S. custody. Enhanced vetting of sponsors — including fingerprints and other paperwork — and the sharing of that information between child welfare and immigration authorities slowed down the release of children and exposed the sponsors to deportation.”

Officials told the Post they wanted to improve child safety with the policy. However, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) determined the new approach failed in this goal months after its implementation.

The administrators also admitted another motive behind the policy: deterrence. By making the process as miserable as possible, officials believed they would discourage future migrant flows.

“The approach caused thousands of unaccompanied minors to be stranded in U.S. custody and exacerbated the appearance of a crisis on the southern border — a major element underlying the administration’s public request for billions of dollars in additional funding from Congress,” writes the Post.

The report showed that multiple officials warned of the coming crisis: “Jonathan White, then deputy director of the ORR’s children’s program, warned in a July 2017 memo that the administration’s plan to separate children from their families and to alter the process of handing children over to sponsors would ‘result in significant increases’ in how long children would be held.”

“This will strain bed capacity,” authorities wrote in a discussion paper in February 2018.

According to interviewed officials, memos and emails reviewed by the Post, the Trump administration knew that “children would languish in Border Patrol stations not equipped to care for them,” and anticipated lawsuits and public criticism.

Record Numbers Of Detained Migrant Children

The report comes as new government data shows that an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children were held in U.S. government custody over the past year, more than any other country in the world, according to the Associated Press. The federal government pursued this detention policy despite knowledge that separated children were vulnerable to severe trauma.

“Early experiences are literally built into our brains and bodies,” said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who directs Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. Earlier this year, he told Congress that “decades of peer-reviewed research” show that detaining kids away from parents or primary caregivers causes long-term psychological damage, as per the Associated Press.

The Washington Post report reinforces a whistleblower memo published by Sen. Jeff Merkley in January, which showed that Trump administration officials plotted to subvert official procedure and deport migrant children by denying them asylum hearings after taking them away from their parents.

President Donald Trump’s “child immigration strategy is immoral and comes from a dark place in the heart of this administration,” said Sen. Merkley, responding to the revelations on Twitter. “Children are NOT expendable commodities in political battles.”

“We have proof that the Trump War on Migrant Children was carefully constructed to inflict harm on children and create a humanitarian crisis,” Merkley continued.

Officials Knew They Were Underfunded

The investigative report shows how Trump administration officials not only knew that their new policy would overflow bed space, but that they lacked sufficient funds to accommodate increased numbers of migrant children.

“Documents reviewed by The Post show that officials also estimated that HHS would need an additional $686 million in funding — more than 50 percent above its planned budget — to accommodate the policy and create additional bed space,” reports the Post.

Despite their estimate, HHS officials did not request more funds from Congress at the time. Although the administration privately knew it was underfunded for the coming crisis, immigration officials told the Washington Post they blame Congressional Democrats for funding holdups.

As Citizen Truth previously reported, the emergency border funding dispute last summer was between House progressives, who required migrant protections and oversight of detention facilities in their funding bill, and the Sen. McConnell-led Senate bill, which rejected all of these protections. In June, House Speaker Pelosi “reluctantly” acquiesced to the Senate version, infuriating progressives and providing $4.6 billion for the Trump administration to continue its policies without oversight.

Private prison corporations have profited enormously from the Trump administration’s migration agenda, as they provide more than two-thirds of the beds for migrants in detention. The industry receives billions in government contracts and is awarded extensive tax breaks, even though it has provided inhumane living conditions and has used migrants for slave labor.

President Trump and many other defenders of the immigration crackdown have close ties to private prison corporations. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who broke Congressional rules in August in order to harshen asylum laws, is one of the top recipients of campaign donations from the industry.

Stephen Miller’s Manufactured Crisis?

The Washington Post’s report comes the same week as an investigative report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) removed any plausible deniability that Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller is a white nationalist.

The report, based on over 900 emails from 2015-1016, reveals how Miller shaped Breitbart’s election coverage, offering ideas and articles from white nationalist and neo-Nazi websites he views as legitimate sources. The emails show Miller’s affinity for “Camp of the Saints,” an explicitly racist dystopian book in which refugees eat and play with feces and rape a white woman to death, which he recommends as quality subject material for Breitbart articles. Other correspondents in Miller’s emails include former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and current Trump aide Julia Hahn.

The 34-year old policy adviser is most famous for his role as the chief architect of the Trump administration’s child separation policy and Muslim ban. Critics argue that the record number of children currently in detention is a product of Miller’s plot to use cruelty to deter future migrant flows.

As he explained to US Customs and Border Protection officials, “My mantra has persistently been presenting aliens with multiple unsolvable dilemmas to impact their calculus for choosing to make the arduous journey to begin with.”

Another key figure in strategizing “deterrent” policies for migrant children is Chad Wolf, the new acting head of the Department of Homeland Security. Wolf is the fifth DHS chief in less than three years since President Donald Trump took office. Ken Cuccinelli, the former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and a favorite among zero-tolerance immigration advocates, is the DHS’s newest acting deputy.

“President Trump is intentionally circumventing Congress in order to install temporary leadership at DHS to further his cruel agenda against immigrant families and the Latino community,” Congressman Joaquin Castro said of Trump’s reliance on ‘acting’ appointees on Wednesday.

While migrant flows have eased and some of the harshest aspects of Trump administration’s immigration policy have been rolled back, officials anticipate a coming surge of migrants this Spring. Critics fear deliberately cruel policies will continue under the leadership of Miller, Wolf, Cuccinelli, and other hardline officials.

The National Immigrant Justice Center’s Heidi Altman believes the White House’s policies were “intentionally developed to inflict maximum anguish on children.” Altman told the Post that officials knew that their plans “would trigger a chain of events that left children hungry, abused and sick in overcrowded CBP facilities.”

“We did not have to have a backlog. We did not,” Rep. Rose DeLauro said. “That was created.”

Meanwhile, some officials expressed concern that more humane policies would incentivize migrants to come to the United States.

“The shorter the stay, the more likely they’re willing to take it on,” Fox News contributor and former Acting Director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tom Homan told the Washington Post. “If I think I’ll be detained for a year, I might not come. But if I’ll be detained for a week and be released, that may convince me to make that trip.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a staff writer and assistant editor at Citizen Truth.

4 Comments

  1. Juan Reynoso November 16, 2019

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    1. Lauren von Bernuth November 16, 2019

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