The government's "zero tolerance" policy has led to hundreds of families who entered the U.S. illegally being separated—and their children warehoused in old superstore buildings.
An undocumented Honduran woman says that immigration officials took away her four-month-old as she was breastfeeding—and she was put in handcuffs when she tried to hold on to her baby. A group of parents says they were told their children were being taken away to be bathed—and as the hours ticked by, they realized they weren't coming back. And another set of moms claims they could hear their children screaming for them in another room, and were powerless to go to them.
They're just a few of the hundreds of stories of families torn apart, as the government enacts a "zero tolerance" policy that results in the separation of every parent and child that comes across the border without proper documentation. The parents are placed in prison to await trial and possible deportation. And children by the hundreds—or some even say thousands—are warehoused in abandoned Walmarts and other buildings along the border. "I think it's between 1,500 and 2,000," Lee Gelernt, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept. And there's more every single day.
And it's not just teens and school-aged children: A New York Times article from April said that more than 100 children under the age of four are being held in these places. (And that was before the "zero tolerance" policy was officially announced on May 7.)
The practice has drawn concern and condemnation from a number of groups: The U.N. calls the separation of families "a serious violation of the rights of the child," several religious groups and leaders have released statements condemning the practice, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association have all released statements expressing their concern. "I've never been in this situation where I've felt so needlessly helpless," Colleen Kraft, M.D., FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CNN. "This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse."
The media were recently allowed into one facility, and shared images of small rooms lined with cots, and long lines for meals. Because the space was overcrowded, kids only had half-days of school each day, and were only allowed two phone calls a week to family members.
"The effect of this type of event will follow these children into adulthood and into their entire lives," Ana Maria Lopez, M.D., MPH, FACP, president of the American College of Physicians, said on Thursday. "This is injustice against the most vulnerable people on this planet: little children. And we can't stay silent."
What You Can Do
Many parents have been haunted by the stories of what's happening, and feel powerless to change it. But there are several things you can do to make an impact.
There are several groups who offer free legal services to undocumented immigrants, and donating to them could help keep the family in the country. Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) offers free and low-cost legal services for immigrating families, and the Florence Project also offers free legal services for people who are already in ICE custody. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works endlessly to safeguard the rights of immigrants and refugees.
Send a letter to the editor of your local paper—or to your member of Congress. (You can call them, too. Dial 202-224-3121 and the switchboard will connect you to your representatives.) You can even send a simple text of the word "Resist" to 50409 and the Resistbot will help you contact your officials.
The organization Families Belong Together is hosting several rallies nationwide to protest the policy—and civil actions are being planned for the next two weeks. Find an event near you here.