As sad and infuriating as it is to say, the United States needs a law to keep the federal government from taking children from their parents without cause, and without a way to give them back.

It shouldn’t, of course. The sight of kids locked in cages should be enough, as should the thought that the families may never be together again, or that the children may never fully recover, however it all ends up.

It should be enough, too, that the policy of child separation put in place by President Donald Trump does not work as a deterrent to illegal immigration nor is it making our country any safer.

But it hasn’t been enough. The Trump administration began the abhorrent practice far before it was made public, and continues it today, even as they downplay its persistence.

The American public first heard about the “zero-tolerance” policy last April, when the Trump administration announced that, in attempt to discourage migration, all adults crossing the border illegally would be prosecuted and their children taken away.

President Trump was forced by the ensuing outrage to end the policy in June. A week later, a judge ordered all the children separated in the intervening months  — about 2,400 — returned to their families.


But we know now that the policy started much earlier, sometime in 2017, and involved “thousands” more children, according to a federal inspector general.

The exact number is unknown, because as with the children taken from their parents last summer, no system was set up to keep track.

Commander Jonathan White, the man ultimately in charge of taking care of the detained children, testified he was not told of the separation policy even as he began to notice an increase in the number of kids sent his way.

When the idea of such a policy had been raised earlier, White told a House investigative panel last week, he told administration officials that it would overwhelm the system and irrevocably harm the children. No wonder he was left out of the loop.

At last week’s hearing, we also learned that the child separation policy didn’t end with Trump’s executive order. Border enforcement is still separating children from their families by claiming they are in danger, though they don’t have to provide proof.

A federal inspector said at the hearing that while separations have gone down dramatically since the peak, they were still double the number of 2016.


What’s more, the Trump administration is arguing that it cannot — and should not — reunite children placed with sponsors with their parents. Many of those children were placed with family members, but some of them went to foster homes; it certainly appears that in those cases their parents will lose their rights.

Child separation was always morally repugnant, even if it was only used rarely and as a last-resort answer to an actual crisis.

Trump has weaponized the policy. He has hidden it, too, both before and after a national uproar, raising questions about how far his administration will push executive authority to meet their regressive immigration goals.

With no other recourse, Congress should put strict limits on separation, create tracking and reunification systems for families that are separated, and spell out how children should be cared for.

As of now, we don’t have any way of stopping a president from doing so much harm to children for so little purpose. Maybe no one ever thought we’d need one.

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