The Trump Cabinet’s War on Children: Sessions Goes Above and Beyond (Part III)
In Part I and Part II of this series on the “War on Children,” I highlighted many of the ways that Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney have, through their policies and action in the Cabinet, imposed harm on children.
Yet, as bad as those two (and others in the Trump Cabinet, such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned) have been to children, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been the worst Cabinet member of all for children in the Trump Administration.
To begin, while the entire nation was grieving and coping with the school shooting and death of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, the Attorney General did everything possible to avoid the issue of gun safety and, instead, pointed the blame at children themselves:
When parents once again go to sleep fearful that their kids will not be safe, even when they go to school — parents have told me in gang-infested neighborhoods that children can no longer stand at the bus stop by themselves — they take turns, parents do, of being out there every morning and afternoon. So we’ve gotta confront the problem. There’s no doubt about it.
Gangs had absolutely nothing to do with the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School.
I guess it doesn’t matter to Sessions that Parkland is not a place terrorized by gang violence. Or that Parkland was just named Florida’s safest city in 2017, according to an analysis by the Washington-based National Council for Home Safety and Security.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for the Trump administration to call homegrown terrorism by its name. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that the current administration emboldens this brand of hate and then preys on white America’s fear by pulling out tired tropes about gang violence to avoid the obvious issues of homegrown hate and unbridled access to guns.
Just a few weeks later, Sessions announced the Administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. DACA has protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. That protection would have ended on March 5, 2018, if not for a court injunction that ordered the protection of those children and young adults from being harmed.
In his opinion, the judge rebuffed Sessions by citing his actions as being “arbitrary and capricious” and added, “It is impossible to understand the full consequences of a decision of this magnitude.” The judge also chided the Administration for the “profound and irreversible” costs that ending the policy and separating families would have.
Sessions is seeking to overturn that ruling.
Sadly, separating families and harming children has become a recurrent theme with the Attorney General and the party that formerly stood for “family values”, as Sessions subsequently adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants that has changed an array of Justice Department policies intended to protect immigrant families and the best interests of children. Zero tolerance has resulted in the separation of over 3,000 children from their parents.
However, as the Vox’s Dara Lind reports, even before the Administration’s formal family separation policy was adopted and enforced, Sessions had made enormous changes to how the Justice Department prosecutes cases and how immigration courts review cases that heavily tilt decisions against immigrants and their children.
Through his direction, Sessions has sought elimination of consideration of the best interest of the child in immigration cases and most recently told immigration judges across the country to “stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.”
Highlighting just how bad and radical these policy changes are, Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrants Rights and Justice Program, said:
This administration continues to swiftly deconstruct America’s moral code and values by doing everything possible to limit access to asylum. What this means in practical terms is that the United States is turning its back on our commitment to never again send people back to a country where their life is at risk. Women and children will die as a result of these policies.
As bad as all of these things are, child advocates have been most focused on the horrendous family separation policy adopted by the Trump Administration with respect to children and families applying for asylum along the border. This policy change is both cruel and inhumane and the disregard that Sessions has for the impact that it has on children is highlighted in this rather disturbing exchange between him and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Hewitt repeatedly presses Sessions on the issue of separating migrant children from their parents and the failure of the government to provide counsel to unaccompanied children applying for asylum. This interview is shocking, particularly Sessions’s rather alarming responses to the concerns and lack of regard for Hewitt repeated concerns related to the policy of separating children from their families.
Our policy should be guided by basic human rights and morality. As Michelle Chen writes for The Nation:
They arrive at the border with nothing, stripped of their money, their homes and often, their dignity. Now the United States is robbing them of the one thing they’ve miraculously clung to through their journey: each other.
When asked if it was “cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her child,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defended the policy by saying, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
This is the very definition of cruel and heartless — and I would add inhumane, abhorrent, callous, and disastrous. Frankly, it also highlights the utter disregard of this Administration to the plight of children more generally. When it comes to the lives and safety of children, the answer should never be “or whatever.”
Instead, the best interest of the child should be the standard.
The fact is that Sessions and Kelly have no idea about the impact this has on children and don’t seem to care. The reality is catastrophic. As Chen adds:
Some kids might vanish altogether as they are dragged through the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. According to the [Inter-Americans Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)] petition, efforts to track the placement of several separated children have been stonewalled, with lawyers struggling to trace their whereabouts on the phone for incarcerated parents, and unable to determine to which of the country’s federal refugee shelters they had been sent; one child could not be relocated. There have been reports of some parents being deported while their children remain trapped in the United States.
Countless other children face an unknown fate; many are funneled into a painfully backlogged court docket — and likely forced to plead their asylum case without a lawyer (making it exceedingly likely for even a legitimate claim to fail). Others will bounce through the system as refugee shelters grow overcrowded with unnecessarily imprisoned children — while ignoring more humane, community-based alternative programs for housing them with their families.
The IACHR petition accuses the administration of “violation of the right to protection of the family.” Perhaps the cruelest aspect of the strategy is that the government is dealing with refugees through collective punishment, subjecting whole families to misery just to make America as unbearable as possible, with the aim of making them return home “voluntarily” rather than exercise their fundamental human right to seek asylum.
According to Liz Goodman of the Boston Globe, several of the clients of Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, a federal public defender in McAllen, Texas, working with separated families have “told her their children were taken from them by Border Patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath. As the hours passed, it dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.”
Compounding these tragedies, not only is our government separating children from their families with lies and deceit and with little understanding or concern about the impact, but as Lind points out, “they don’t appear to have a system to bring families back together.”
Once again, one judge have had to step in to address the immense harm being inflicted upon children by the family separation policy and impose a series of deadlines to reunite children with their parents. And yet, the Trump Administration has been slow to respond.
Another judge had to reject the Administration’s request to address the family separation problem by gutting the Flores consent agreement that requires the government to take into account the best interest of the child in its enforcement of immigration policy. In doing so, Sessions’s Justice Department asked the judge to allow it to lock children up with their parents indefinitely. Thankfully, the judge rejected that request.
This has been so awful and tragic that Sessions would likely win the award of “Worst Cabinet Secretary for Children”, with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson earning dishonorable mention for her role in this disaster.
However, Sessions’s disregard for kids isn’t limited to the victims of gun violence or immigrant or refugee children. In June, the Justice Department chose not to defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from a challenge by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claiming the ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions and guarantee issue are unconstitutional based on Congress have repealed the individual mandate that everyone carry insurance.
If successful, this will have life-long implications on our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, including children with special health care needs.
A number of key members of Congress have expressed grave concern about the position being taken by the Justice Department in this case. As Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said:
I think the chance of that argument’s succeeding are as close to zero as anything I know of. That’s as far-fetched a legal argument as I think I’ve ever heard.
We have to hope that there is not an unspoken competition in the Trump Cabinet to treat children harshly, as there is so much happening that would be harmful to kids across the entire Administration. For example, just this past week, the Administration took a disturbing position against breast feeding before the UN-affiliated World Health Assembly.
And, as I noted earlier, this series doesn’t even get into all the things that Scott Pruitt was doing at the EPA to harm children, such as the agency’s decision to pull back a scheduled ban on the pesticides chlorpyrifos and to stop research on chemicals’ effects on children’s health.
Children Need Strong Advocates and an Independent Children’s Commissioner to Hear Their Voice
If you are an advocate for children, it is hard to not get overwhelmed. Across the federal departments and agencies, the onslaught of threats to children has been truly unprecedented.
At yet, we must speak out against these policies — all of them. They have far-reaching implications for the future of our children now and well into the future. We also cannot allow the disregard for children that we are witnessing to be normalized in our society.
What it also highlights is the need to have an independent Children’s Commissioner, so that children have a voice in the federal government and someone looking out for their interest.
Time and time again, adults and institutions have failed our children. Far too often, children are treated like an afterthought — “or whatever.”
As thousands of victims of child abuse can attest, the failure to listen to children is dangerous to their lives and well-being. Just ask all the victims of Dr. Larry Nasser at Michigan State University and in the U.S. Gymnastics program, the victims of Catholic priests, the victims of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University.
Furthermore, it is impractical to believe that our nation’s young people will come to love and understand democracy if our society simultaneously structures public debate and policies that impact children in ways that fail to ensure that their perspectives and voices are regarded, heard, and respected.
And finally, although our nation’s children deserve action from our policymakers to protect their health and well-being, they are often treated as an afterthought, used as a bargaining chip, or even targeted for harm. Therefore, at the very least, we should ensure their voices are heard and listened to. They are, after all, our next generation of leaders.