Trump Admin Hints It May Resume Family Separation at Border; ACLU Says “Public Outcry Is Critical”

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The Trump administration is reportedly considering plans to resume its policy of forcibly separating migrant children from their families along the U.S.-Mexico border, even as the full number of people torn apart the last time it carried out the widely condemned practice remains unclear. A new report by Amnesty International suggests immigration officials separated some 6,000 families between April and August, a far higher number of children and parents torn apart than previously thought. Trump administration officials are now considering plans to detain asylum-seeking families together for up to 20 days and then force parents to choose either to stay detained together for months or years while their immigration case proceeds or to allow their children to be taken to a government shelter where their relatives or others can seek custody. We speak with Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. He is the lead lawyer on the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The Trump administration is reportedly considering plans to resume its policy of forcibly separating children from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border, even as the full number of people torn apart the last time it carried out the widely condemned practice remains unclear. A new report by Amnesty International suggests immigration officials separated some 6,000 families between April and August, a far higher number of children and parents torn apart than previously thought.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported senior White House adviser Stephen Miller is advocating for tougher measures in response to thousands of parents with children who continue to seek asylum in the United States after fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Miller said the separations were an effective deterrent; on Saturday, President Trump said he agreed.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If they feel there’s separation, in many cases they don’t come. But also in many cases, you have really bad people coming in and using children. They’re not their children. They don’t even know the children. They haven’t known the children for 20 minutes, and they grab children, and they use them to come into our country. You got some really bad people out there. We’re doing an incredible job. But the one thing I will say: The country is doing so well economically in every other way that more people want to come in than ever before.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump administration officials are now considering plans to detain asylum-seeking families together for up to 20 days, then force parents to choose to either stay detained together for months or years while their immigration case proceeds or allow their children to be taken to a government shelter, where their relatives or others can seek custody.

This comes as an Associated Press investigation has revealed parents who were deported from the U.S. after being separated from their children may lose their children to adoption without their knowledge. The AP found holes in the system that allow for state judges to put children of deported Central American immigrants in the custody of U.S. families without notifying the parents.

Meanwhile, a tent city in the desert outside El Paso, Texas, that was set up to hold migrant children, has expanded its capacity by nearly 10 times since it opened in June, and now has the capacity of nearly 4,000 beds.

For more, we’re joined by Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the lead lawyer on the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice, also presented the first challenge to President Trump’s travel ban order, known as the Muslim ban. His argument resulted in a nationwide injunction.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

LEE GELERNT: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. We’ve been trying for a while. I know you’ve been traveling back and forth around the country, particularly in California—

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —where you intimately involved with the negotiations around getting these kids back together with their parents—

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —to meet the judge’s deadline.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But many were not brought back together.

LEE GELERNT: We still haven’t got them all back. And that—

AMY GOODMAN: What are the numbers?

LEE GELERNT: You know, the numbers are shifting, because the government’s numbers are shifting. We believe there is somewhere between a hundred and 200 kids who still need to be reunited. And that’s the crazy thing about it, is that they are talking about a new family separation policy, haven’t even got all the children back together from the first separation policy. These kids are so traumatized. Little children are going to be potentially permanently traumatized. And now they’re talking about having new family separation. There is going to be such an outcry, just like there was the first time, maybe bigger. We’ll be back in court. I mean, I cannot believe that they’re actually talking about another family separation.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it possible to do it? I mean, after you have the judge’s ruling they have to be reunited, isn’t this defying the courts?

LEE GELERNT: Well, so what they’re going to do is tweak it a little bit and say this is different. Whatever they want to call it, we’ll be back in court.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Amnesty’s numbers—

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —saying, in fact, 6,000 families were separated?

LEE GELERNT: Right. We have been concerned for a while that there may have been more families separated than the government was revealing. I don’t know whether Amnesty’s numbers are exactly correct or not. We’ll have to see. What we’re waiting for is the government to respond. All the government is doing is sort of categorically denying and saying it’s inaccurate. We need more specifics, and we will keep pressing the government on those specifics and wait to see. We have no reason to distrust Amnesty’s numbers, but we’d like to see the government response specifically to them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about, for example, the hundreds—several hundred children right now.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are they?

LEE GELERNT: They are in government facilities in the U.S. The biggest bulk—what we’ve been fighting now for about eight weeks is they deported roughly 400 parents without their children. So those parents are all over the world, largely in Central America. So we have been trying to track those parents, to find them, to ask them, “What do you want to do? These are your legal options.” And I was in Guatemala a few weeks ago talking to some of the parents. It’s an agonizing decision, because the government is saying, “We won’t bring the parents back.” We’re going to still try and get the parents back, but if they can’t come back, they’re having to make this brutal decision: Do I leave my child in the U.S. to pursue asylum and keep them safe, or do I bring them back and reunite them?

And about two-thirds of the parents are leaving their children in the U.S., which goes to show you just how dangerous it is there. And conservatives are saying, “Well, look, these parents don’t even care about their children. They’re abandoning them.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When I looked in these parents’ eyes, they have such agony making this decision. But they say to me, “I can’t bring my child back here. It’s just too dangerous. I’m old. My life is over. If I’m killed, I’m killed. But I can’t bring my child back here.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a top Health and Human Services official, who told lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that he had repeatedly warned the Trump administration against separating immigrant families at the border. This is Jonathan White, commander of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a branch of HHS. White referred to ORR—O-R-R—which stands for the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

JONATHAN WHITE: During the deliberative process over the previous year, we raised a number of concerns in the ORR program about any policy which would result in family separation, due to concerns we had about the best interest of the child, as well as about whether that would be operationally supportable with the bed capacity we had.

AMY GOODMAN: During the hearing, Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal also questioned Johnathan White about the psychological impact of separating children from their parents.

JONATHAN WHITE: Separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Well, it’s traumatic for any child separated from his or her parents. Am I correct? I say that as a parent of four children.

JONATHAN WHITE: There’s no question. There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite Johnathan White’s testimony, a top official with ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, tried to defend the Trump administration’s practice of separating kids from their parents, comparing the child detention facilities to “summer camp.” This is Matthew Albence, head of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE.

MATTHEW ALBENCE: I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp. These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured. There’s basketball courts. There’s exercise classes. There are soccer fields that we put in there.

AMY GOODMAN: A veritable summer camp.

LEE GELERNT: Right. I think when we see the administration’s own kids going to those summer camps, we’ll know that they’re really summer camps. But I’m so glad you played that clip of Commander White talking about the trauma, because in some ways it’s just starting, or the next phase is just starting. These kids are so badly—and the government is doing nothing to provide trauma relief. We are going to try to get doctors to see all these children pro bono. But the children—I mean, when I talked to a mother who had a 4- and a 10-year-old separated, the 4-year-old just keeps asking her, now that they’re reunited, “Are they going to come and take me away again?” I mean, that’s the vulnerability that’s set in for all these children.

AMY GOODMAN: The government is trying to stop the—or, expand the 20-day limit on parents and kids—

LEE GELERNT: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —that are imprisoned.

LEE GELERNT: Right. So what they’re basically saying is, “Oh, you have a choice: You can keep your child with you in an essentially immigration jail, or you can lose your child and let your child go out.” I mean, that’s no choice at all, right? And so, the government knows very well they have another choice, which is to release the family under supervision, even if they want to take the harsh step of putting ankle bracelets on. The Trump administration abandoned the Obama administration’s use of a program that was 97 percent effective in assuring appearance. And now they’re saying, “The only choice we have is to keep them in immigration jail or to separate.” That’s absolutely wrong. They can release these asylum-seeking families under supervision.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they face? You were in Guatemala. What are these kids and families facing, why a parent would make the excruciating decision to remain separated from their child because they fear for their child’s lives?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. So, take this one father we went to see. We said, “We want to come see you. We’ll see you anytime during the day.” He said, “I can’t get off work.” We said, “Fine. We’ll come at night.” He said, “No. The gangs closed down the town, have a curfew. I’m not allowed out of my house. You certainly can’t come here.” I mean, that’s the kind of danger these families are in. What parent would willingly give up their child? They are making the kind of decision that no parent should ever have to face.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were in San Diego a lot—

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —negotiating with the government.

LEE GELERNT: And in court, right.

AMY GOODMAN: And in court.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Trying to meet this—make the government meet this deadline—

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —to release the children, the first set under 5 and then the others going up into their teen years. What wasn’t the government giving you? And what have they even admitted now they didn’t, when it came to giving information that would connect the parents from their kids?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Information, in fact, they had, but said, “You go look for it yourself”?

LEE GELERNT: Exactly. So, it was like pulling teeth every single step. So, the first step was, “Look, we don’t have”—they actually said in court, “We don’t have a budget item to bring the kids back to their parents.” They had a budget item, of course, to separate them. The judge said, “Absolutely not. These parents are not paying to get their own children back.” Then, when we said, “We can’t find these parents without information,” they said, “No, you go find them.” The judge said, “Absolutely not.”

It turns out that they had phone numbers for the parents. We’re driving around Central America looking for the parents. They were sitting on the phone numbers. Finally, we have the phone numbers. We are calling the parents. All but 10 of the parents, at least as of the last report, have been reached, but only because we have had to do this legwork.

AMY GOODMAN: What has to happen now, Lee?

LEE GELERNT: Well, I think all the children have to come back. We’d like to see the children get relief. We’d like to see the children get fair asylum proceedings. And we certainly don’t want to see more separations. And we don’t want to see a substitute for family separations be long-term, indefinite detention of these families. The medical community has said, if you detain these families, it will cause severe harm to the children, long-term detention. We don’t put 4-year-olds in long-term detention in this country—or we shouldn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I saw Ivanka Trump interviewed. She said the family separation was the low point of the presidency. She’s not just the president’s daughter, but she is a senior adviser to the president.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And now the president, once again, even with hundreds of children still separated from their parents, saying that they’re going to separate them again.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, it’s remarkable. I mean, anybody who was opposed to it, hopefully, spoke out at the time. I mean, people need to speak out in real time and stop it, not after the fact. I cannot believe that the administration is thinking about going back to this. This is the only place the administration has ever pulled back, and that’s because of the public outcry. I’m urging the public to have that same outcry if they try it again. That’s what’s critical. The ACLU will be in court, but the public outcry is critical.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things that President Trump continually said is they’ve got to come over the border legally. We went to the border. We went on the bridges. Mothers with their 2-year-old children, day after day, in the hot blazing sun, not being allowed—which was the Trump administration being illegal, breaking federal and international law, not allowing them into the country.

LEE GELERNT: Oh, absolutely. And so, first of all, the lead plaintiff in our case presented herself lawfully at the border, did not cross illegally. And that—she had her child taken, and many others. So the narrative they were putting out was simply wrong. But now they’ve said, “Go to a port of entry.” You’re absolutely right. The lines are endless. People are sitting out there with their little children. Ultimately, they have no choice but to cross where they can cross. They’re not going to sit out there for a month with a 3-year-old. It’s absolutely horrendous, what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Who would force the administration to engage in lawful activity? Who can do that?

LEE GELERNT: Well, I think it’s going to have to be the courts. But I think, like all big civil rights cases, it has to have that public outcry around it. There has to be this atmosphere. And I think what you saw in the summer is the public pushing back, not just liberals and Democrats, but conservatives and Republicans, saying, “Look, in the United States, we just don’t do this to children.” If the administration is going to do it again, we have to see that public outcry again. We have to.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Gelernt is deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, lead lawyer for the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice. He presented the first challenge to President Trump’s travel ban order, known as the Muslim ban, his argument resulting in a nationwide injunction.

This is Democracy Now! Óscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, has been declared a saint by the pope. We’ll go to British Columbia to speak with the author of Assassination of a Saint. What happened on March 24th, 1980, in El Salvador, the killing of an archbishop, and what was the U.S. role in that? Stay with us.

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