Higher Education Community Fights Immigrant Family Separations as Future of Detained Children Remains Unclear

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President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wed., June 20 to end the practice of separating parents and children who are detained for illegally crossing the southern border from Mexico to the U.S. The White House has asserted, however, that Trump’s order does not eradicate the administration’s zero-tolerance policy which dictates that every person caught crossing the border be detained, nor is it clear if the thousands of families who have been separated since the policy went into effect in April will be reunited any time soon.

Trump’s decision comes after days of public outrage and extreme pressure from Democrats, human rights organizations, religious leaders, and most recently, thousands in the higher education community.

Earlier this week, more than 3,000 faculty members from colleges and universities across the U.S. signed an open letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) objecting to the treatment of the 2,300 children currently in DHS custody. They state in the letter that as scholars, educators, and public servants, they cannot in good conscience be complicit with the separation of immigrant parents from their children.

The three-page letter gives several overarching reasons for the signatories’ opposition to what they call “government-sanctioned child abuse.” Namely, they point to the long body of research showing that children who are separated from their primary caregivers experience severe emotional distress, resulting in extreme, long-term harm to their mental health. The signatories also argue that the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy violates a detainee’s right to due process as well as international human rights regulations.

Furthermore, the faculty members strongly condemned the ethnic discrimination inherent in the administration’s decision to enforce this practice en masse against Latino immigrants. They called the president’s actions against this community an “outright attack upon youth within Trump’s war upon immigrants and people of color … that has eerie echoes in shameful histories of state dictatorship, ethnocide, and genocide.”

Other higher education leaders have declared strong opposition to the policy, including University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce. In a statement released by the university on Monday, Cauce, a former child clinical psychologist, details the extreme detriment to the children who are currently being held in DHS’s makeshift shelters and tent cities. She warns that these young people will likely experience decreased learning ability due to changes in brain development, as well as “debilitating depression, self-loathing, and doubt” and “an inability to connect with others, diminished empathy, anger, and aggression.” She called on fellow educators to demand that lawmakers make family separations permanently illegal.

A plethora of educational, medical, and human rights groups; K-12 leaders and organizations; and religious institutions and leaders have called for an end to the detainment and for the reuniting of families.

Fr. John I. Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, released a statement saying that the policy goes against the principles of Catholic education. And, nearly 650 clergy members of the United Methodist Church have signed a letter condemning the policy and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a prominent member of the church — for sanctifying what they see as child abuse.

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have struggled in recent days to introduce bills that would immediately reunite detained families, many are accusing the Trump administration of using the situation to pass broader immigration reform. The House is set to vote on two bills on June 21 that include broad reforms; however, only one of the bills would result in the reunification of detained families. The legislation would also allocate billions of dollars to build a border wall as well as provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s 800,000 DACA recipients by allowing them to apply for work visas and, after six years, green cards. It is unclear how or if that bill may be revised in the face of Trump’s newly signed executive order.

Experts say the bill may pass the Republican-controlled House but is not likely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The other bill up for approval on June 21 — which would grant DACA recipients temporary legal status but not citizenship — is more restrictive of immigration policies and not expected to gain the votes of moderate Republicans.