Following nationwide protests against immigrant detention and child separation — including a blockade of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Portland, Ore. — on June 20 President Donald Trump signed an executive order to incarcerate families together in immigrant prisons. While the decree allows children to be jailed with their parents, it still greenlights the incarceration of entire families, calls for more immigrant detention centers and reinforces the institutions that oversaw child separation: the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE.
For this reason, Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the immigrant justice group Mijente, responded to Trump’s announcement with caution. “We need to be talking about Jeff Sessions and his role criminalizing parents, and the role of ICE in putting people in detention to begin with,” she told In These Times. “People need to shift from saying keep families together to talking about dismantling ICE.”
The order states that family incarceration will continue under Trump and instructs the DOJ to attempt to “modify” the 1997 Flores settlement, which says that the federal government is legally obligated to seek alternatives to the jailing of children in immigrant detention centers. “The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary), shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members,” the order states.
However, the order contains an ill-defined stipulation that some children might be exempt: “The Secretary shall not, however, detain an alien family together when there is a concern that detention of an alien child with the child’s alien parent would pose a risk to the child’s welfare.” It is unclear under what circumstances the president believes incarceration would not pose a risk to a child’s welfare.
The order also instructs the Secretary of Defense — i.e. the U.S. military — to construct new facilities to jail parents with their children, “if necessary and consistent with law.” In addition, the decree constricts the definition of family to parents and children, excluding aunts, grandparents and other loved ones.
It does nothing to change Sessions’ “zero-tolerance” policy, announced in April, requiring more criminal prosecutions of people aprehended attempting to enter the United States without authorization. This rule has led to harsher prosecutions and the further erosion of due process — and it helped lay the groundwork for family separation.
Perhaps most urgently, the order does not address the immediate needs of the 2,300 children forcibly separated from their parents.
Photographs of children warehoused in cages and tapes of them sobbing have provoked widespread outrage in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Trump echoed the rhetoric of Nazi Germany to declare that Democrats want migrants to “infest our country.” The order comes on the heels of repeated efforts by the Trump administration to double down on its “zero-tolerance” policy aimed of separating children from their parents at the border, which Sessions claimed is justified in the Bible — earning him widespread rebuke.
Yet, the practice of incarcerating children in immigrant detention goes back further. Former President Barack Obama, who has been conspicuously silent during the child separation crisis, made family incarceration the mainstay of his response to mass displacement from Central America. Family detention has been condemned by the U.S. government’s own Commission on Civil Rights, as well as Satsuki Ina, a survivor of a Japanese-American internment camp, who compared the practice to her own experience. Since at least 2015, mothers incarcerated with their children have staged protests and hunger strikes within immigrant prisons — and testified to the horrific conditions they have faced.
In August 2016, 22 mothers incarcerated in “Berks Family Residential Center” with their children wrote a letter to Jeh Johnson — then-Secretary of DHS — stating, “Our children, who range in age from 2 to 16, have been deprived of a normal life. We are already traumatized from our countries of origin. We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground.”
“While here our children have considered committing suicide, made desperate from confinement,” they continued. “The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense. One of our children said he wanted to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare.”
Following the Trump administration’s family separations, it appears that more children are suicidal. On June 14, Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported for the Los Angeles Times on harrowing conditions at the Tucson shelter, Estrella del Norte, where children were being incarcerated: “Several [children] were being monitored this week because they were at risk of running away, self-harm and suicide, records show.”
On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced new legislation proposing to build more “temporary shelters” — i.e. jails — to hold parents with their children.
Amid Trump’s significant increase of deportation arrests and a harsh border crackdown, organizers warn that movements should not set a bar so low that they allow for the continued jailing of children. For this reason, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is calling for people across the country to mobilize “like never before” for planned nationwide protest against the Trump administration’s family separation policy on June 30.
“Children belong with their families and in their communities, not in cages or behind bars,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and chair of the We Belong Together campaign, in a statement released Wednesday. “Families seeking safety need protection and opportunity, not detention. To pretend that keeping children together with their parents in family jails will stop this humanitarian crisis and calm the public outrage is wrong and unacceptable, full stop.”
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.