Washington – At a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro sought support for her resolution condemning the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border.
““The Trump zero-tolerance policy is a child abuse,” DeLauro said.
She was joined by about a dozen Democratic House members seeking support for DeLauro’s resolution, which says the U.S. House of Representatives condemns the policy as child abuse and “remains actively committed to keeping children and their parents together as they come to the 12 United States, many of whom are fleeing violence.”
“Children are being ripped from their parents arms, just to comply with Donald Trump’s policy of zero tolerance,” said Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y.
According to federal public defenders in Texas, some 500 children have been separated from their parents within the last month.
There is no official Trump policy that says every family entering the United States without papers must be separated. But, beginning in May, the Trump administration determined that every adult caught crossing the United States illegally must be criminally prosecuted in what it called a “zero-tolerance” policy.
That means the immigrants are usually incarcerated in federal facilities, which under law cannot detain minors.
A first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor that usually carries up to a six-month prison sentence. Repeat entry constitutes a felony and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment. It is not clear how easily parents convicted of illegal entry will be able to reunite with their children.
Aleksandr Troyb, past president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the Trump administration chose to charge undocumented aliens with violations of federal law. He said the Obama administration usually sent them to immigration detention centers until an immigration judge determined whether they should be deported.
Under the Obama administration, Troyb said, only undocumented immigrants involved in a scheme to smuggle people or involved in money laundering “or some larger enterprise,” were charged with a federal offense.
“Part of the appeal of the [Trump] policy is that it is believed to be a deterrent to immigration,” Troyb said.
In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vigorously defended the “zero-tolerance” policy.
“If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” Sessions said. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity.”
DeLauro, and other Democrats at Wednesday’s press conference, said the forced separation can cause children long-lasting trauma. “This zero-tolerance policy could inflict lifelong scars on these children,” DeLauro said.
Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to prevent the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and supported by Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, the bill would only allow children to be separated from a parent if they are being abused, trafficked or if a court decides “it is in the best interests of the child.”
Like DeLauro’s resolution, Feinstein’s bill has an uphill climb in the GOP-controlled Congress.
That’s not stopping Democrats from making noise about the separations.
A protest by about 10 House Democrats against the policy was scheduled Wednesday afternoon at the headquarters of the Customs and Border Protection agency in Washington, D.C.
Democrats say children as young as one-year old are losing their parents. They also point to a man from Honduras who committed suicide in a federal facility after being separated from his children.
At her press conference, DeLauro said a woman fleeing violence in Honduras was forced to give her child to federal officials at the border who drove off with the child, which was not returned to its mother for several months.
After thousands of unaccompanied minors from Honduras and other Central American countries came to the United States in 2014, the Obama administration responded to the crisis by placing those children in immigration detention.
But federal courts stopped the Obama administration from holding those children for months. Most were teenagers who were released to family members in the United States.
“They were taken into detention and processed,” Troyb said. “But they were not taken away from their parents because there were no parents.”
Under federal law, unaccompanied alien children are sent into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The ORR is responsible for finding the nearest relative or family friend living in the United States to whom the child can be released.
But there’s evidence the ORR is overwhelmed. Its facilities were already 95 percent full as of June 7, with 11,000 children being held, most of them unaccompanied minors.
To provide more space to hold children, the Trump administration is considering installing tents at Texas military bases.
“The president of the United States is talking about constructing internment camps for children,” DeLauro said.