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Congress should force Trump to fix child separation outrage

My heart broke reading ...

Posted: Jul 27, 2018 1:40 AM
Updated: Jul 27, 2018 1:40 AM

My heart broke reading their stories.

In May, at a border detention facility, a 14-year-old girl was told she could go to the shower. When she went, her mother was taken away. One day, after being detained crossing the border with his father in June, a 9-year-old boy was too tired to keep his eyes open. When he slept, his father was taken away.

Their families fled to the United States to escape violence. Then our country tore them from their parents, keeping them confined before shipping them thousands of miles away to live in Connecticut-with strangers, in custody sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services.

This is part of the story of the Trump administration's manufactured crisis at our border. It is an outrage and it is child abuse. As a result of its zero tolerance immigration policy, which has treated asylum seekers as criminals, the Trump administration separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents.

July 26th was the court-mandated deadline for the administration to reunify children between the ages of 5 and 17 with their parents. But the Trump administration has failed to meet that deadline. According to the administration's own data, as many as 463 parents have already been deported. Those parents and their children may never be reunited.

The media may have moved on to new crises over Russia or Iran, but this does not mean that this crisis has been solved. As the Congress, we must ensure the Trump administration reunites every single family that it has separated, and without further delay.

When I visited the border at the end of June, it was worse than I imagined. At the Ursula station, children were kept in freezing-cold holding cells with only tin foil blankets to keep them warm. The children and adults were moved to the Ursula Border Patrol Central Processing Center, a massive warehouse with cages that go on and on and with bright lights that beamed 24 hours a day. People were on display. There was no privacy.

At the Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Port Isabel detention facility, I met with 10 mothers, many in tears, worried about their children.

Child health experts have been sounding the alarm about the harm that we are doing to children by separating them from their families. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, "Separations from parents or primary caregivers is one of the most potent traumatic stressors a child can experience, especially under frightening, sudden, chaotic or prolonged circumstances. Such separations may increase children's risk for developing depression, anxiety, separation-related post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms ("traumatic separation") or other trauma reactions."

The 9-year-old who was held in HHS-sponsored custody in Connecticut, according to legal briefings filed on his behalf, "does not sleep well, distrusts adults and is depressed and tearful."

It is a moral imperative and a medical necessity that the administration reunite all the separated families now. Democrats in Congress are committed to ensuring this happens. On July 11th, the House Appropriations Committee marked up the Labor-HHS-Education FY19 funding bill. It accounts for nearly one third of the federal government's non-defense discretionary spending, including the Department of Health and Human Services.

At that markup, my Democratic colleagues on the committee and I advanced some of the first and only Congressional actions to deal with the President's manufactured crisis.

In a bill worth $177 billion, we passed several amendments that would require that the administration start providing firm answers and clear solutions to ameliorate the trauma this administration has inflicted.

One amendment would provide an increase of $10 million for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Child Traumatic Stress Network. With those funds, grantees would be able to provide counseling to children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement who suffered the trauma of separation.

Another amendment would direct the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to submit to Congress a plan outlining how the department would locate and return every child separated. If the Secretary fails to do so, according to the amendment, we would reduce his budget by $100,000 per day.

It is especially important that we take these actions as news emerges that the Trump administration is still separating families, namely children from aunts, uncles, siblings and grandparents. My Congressional colleagues, who visited detention facilities at the border this weekend, confirmed as much. The President's executive order only recognizes parents as relatives. If grandparents cross with their grandchildren, they are still being separated.

This crisis is far from over.

As the Labor-H FY19 bill moves to the floor, I urge the majority to help us keep families together. Do not let the administration evade accountability. We have demanded answers: on the costs of the "zero tolerance" policy, the massive increase in detentions, on record-keeping and on reunification. But we have, to date, received no concrete answers from the Office of Management and Budget or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Importantly, we must not be trading one abhorrent policy for another. During our markup, Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) offered an amendment that would have the result of holding children and their parents in jail-like conditions for an indefinite period of time, essentially overturning the 1997 Flores settlement, which limits the length of time and conditions under which US officials can detain immigrant children. Indefinite incarceration of innocent children is never the solution.

Thankfully, the tide has begun to turn on this crisis, following a bipartisan and national outcry. Last week, a federal judge ordered the two children being held in Connecticut to be returned to their parents. Finally back with her mom, according to her lawyer, the girl said, "It is beautiful to be free."

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