The Government's Zero Tolerance Policy Caused This Mess. Now How Do We Clean It Up?

Screengrab from PBS NewsHour video

The Trump administration’s decision to implement a “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting every person who crosses the border illegally has been mishandled from the beginning. The policy resulted in the separation of families and a subsequent uproar that eventually caused President Trump to sign an executive order to hold families in immigration detention together instead. Unfortunately, the issues created by the zero tolerance policy cannot be so easily and quickly resolved.


The zero tolerance policy was a departure from previous administrations’ immigration enforcement, which didn’t require agencies to refer every person caught for prosecution and which allowed families to be detained together while awaiting immigration court proceedings.

The Associated Press reported at least three “tender age” shelters are operating in Texas, with a fourth expected to open in Houston. Such facilities are designed to hold detained migrant children who have been separated from their parents.

What constitutes “tender age” is debatable. According to ABC News, Border Patrol Acting Chief of Law Enforcement Operations Brian Hastings stated children under five years old are considered to be of “tender age,” although Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official Steve Wagner said “tender age” can mean up to 13 years old.

“Tender age” shelters are not necessarily a new development; in 2010, the Obama Health and Human Services department referred to “children of a tender age” and sought applications for housing them.

However, Trump’s zero tolerance policy has reportedly resulted in more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents in just a six-week period.

U.S. law requires the transfer of unaccompanied child migrants to HHS facilities within 72 hours of detainment. Once in HHS custody, the department must care for the children and find shelters or foster homes for them until they can be returned to a relative or U.S. sponsor.


Chris Palusky, the CEO of foster organization Bethany Christian Services, told the AP the average age of children in his organization’s care has recently dropped from 14 to seven years old. He said the youngest child to be separated from parents at the border is eight months old.

Besides the cruelty and damage of separating young children from their parents, there are legitimate questions about the government’s ability to care for migrant children. A class-action lawsuit was filed earlier this year alleging years of mistreatment of migrant children in federally-operated facilities. The lawsuit’s allegations of abuse include beating migrant children; over-prescribing psychotropic drugs; handcuffing children for days; and putting bags over children’s heads to make them feel suffocated.

According to one investigation, over a four year period, more than one billion taxpayer dollars for housing migrant children was sent to “companies operating homes facing serious allegations of child mistreatment.”

Because the family separation policy seemed so obviously cruel, it was at first difficult to believe the United States would implement such an inhumane policy.

Because many journalists on Twitter are quick to report anything negative about Trump, it seemed not only possible but more than likely corrections would be issued and reports would be walked back.


Because there was so much conflicting information — partly because immigration law is complicated and partly because the Trump administration cannot get its messaging on the same page — the discussion regarding immigration and the zero tolerance policy has been mostly unproductive.

But now it has become clear the damage that was done, and the confusion that was created, as a result of the zero tolerance policy.

Our country’s illegal immigration issues are complex, and there is no easy or simple solution. But as the old adage says, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, American will cease to be great.” We are the shining city on a hill, inspiring and encouraging all who love liberty and freedom. We know all humans have rights endowed to us by our Creator. We know every life has inherent value and dignity. And participating in the torture that is separating children from their parents is un-American. Separating children from their parents is no “solution” to illegal immigration. It is abhorrent to argue children can and should be used as “deterrents.”

As the party of family values, we have stressed the importance of stable environments and parental figures. It is therefore inconsistent to advocate separating children from parents and breaking up families. These actions are traumatizing and devastating, with the risk of long-term damage.


I’m thankful Trump signed the executive order reversing his administration’s decision. But an executive order ending future separation of families does nothing to help the families who have already been separated. It does not solve the difficulties of reuniting families who were forcibly separated by the United States government.

And there are numerous factors complicating the already challenging task of reuniting these families, including government bureaucracy and inefficiency; the size and scope of the American government and the involvement of different agencies; and a lack of transparency and communication among government departments and agencies.

For example, unauthorized immigrants are assigned “alien numbers” upon entering government custody, but not every agency receives that information. Meanwhile, detained children are frequently moved between shelters, and the processing timeline for children is often different than the timeline for their parents.

To make it even worse, it’s quite possible parents will be deported before being reunited with their children and without the children being notified.

Furthermore, even after the signing of the executive order, the government appears indifferent about helping those who have already been separated; according to the Customs and Border Patrol statement, only children still in custody will be reunited with their parents or legal guardians, while an HHS spokesperson stated, “There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases.”


Like the 2017 travel ban, the Trump administration implemented the zero tolerance policy without proper preparations or planning. Because of such incompetency, the policy has led to utter chaos and unnecessarily forced the White House to engage in major clean-up of its rash actions.

Every aspect of this disaster is utterly disgraceful and unacceptable. This is not pro-life. Every single one of us should demand everything possible is done to reunite these children with their parents.

Members of Congress should demand that HHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson stand before them and answer questions about the immigration policy. She should provide answers regarding the number and location of existing shelters and foster homes; information on each child and where he or she has been transferred to; and the plans to reunite children our government separated from their parents.

Congress should also demand accountability from those responsible for implementing such a policy with no legitimate plans or preparation; at least one Republican congressman is already recommending the firing of Trump advisor Stephen Miller.


Our government created this mess, and we should demand someone be held accountable and all efforts should be taken to correct such horrific wrongs.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.


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