Congress should follow the White House lead and grant legal status to immigrant families separated under Trump

Providing the opportunity for these families to seek permanent legal status is the first step for our country to repair the long-term damage caused by one of the darkest anti-immigration acts in history.

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In June 2018, thousands in Chicago protested the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

In June 2018, thousands in Chicago protested the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Separated families deserve a pathway to citizenship, the Editorial Board writes.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

U.S. officials in recent months have been announcing plans to remedy the injustice of the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in thousands of children being taken from their parents at the Mexican border.

Announcements have been made, only to be taken back a few days later.

The official White House stand on the issue was made public in late January when U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas confirmed to NBC News the administration supports granting a pathway to citizenship to the immigrant families affected by the policy.

That is the fair and right move.

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Editorials

Providing the opportunity for these families to seek permanent legal status is the first step for our country to repair the long-term damage caused by one of the darkest anti-immigration acts in history. Fixing this wrong is something the affected families deserve and is moral action the country needs to take.

Still working on reunification

The zero-tolerance policy was approved in May 2018 by a show of hands in a meeting with senior advisers to then-President Donald Trump. The cruel tactic was meant to scare and discourage immigrant families from crossing the border by punishing them with a nightmare scenario. Under mounting pressure, including from members of his own party — not to mention large public protests across the country — Trump signed an executive order, reversing the policy about a month later.

The policy was short-lived, but the damage done throughout those few weeks remains.

Hundreds of children have not seen their parents in almost four years, and the children who have been reunited with their parents have shown severe trauma symptoms.

“The Trump Administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ family separation policy was a moral stain on our nation that medical experts have characterized as government-sanctioned child abuse,” as Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said. “Simply put, thousands of babies, infants and children were forcibly removed from their parents to create a stark warning to any others seeking refuge in our country. And years later, many families remain separated.”

As many as 1,200 families remain separated, and the parents of 237 children have not yet been located or contacted as of January 2022.

About 130 children have been reunited with their families on U.S. soil since President Joe Biden formed the Family Reunification Task Force in February 2021, but the past administration’s unorganized chaos — such as improper record keeping — has not made the reunification process easy, as Mayorkas has said.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has said family reunification hasn’t been easy.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has said family reunification hasn’t been easy.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Since the separations started, the U.S. government has been hit with lawsuits, and recent studies offer evidence that justifies why these families are seeking justice.

A February 2020 study by the Physicians for Human Rights concluded the separations were not a legitimate policy choice and constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and, in all cases evaluated by PHR experts, rises to the “level of torture.”

Clinicians who evaluated families reported that most individuals had at least one mental health condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder, PHR found. Children showed regressive behaviors, including nightmares, excessive parental attachment, not eating and urinary incontinence.

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Two children who had long been reunited with parents showed severe trauma symptoms. Researchers found a 6-year old Guatemalan girl who met the criteria of PTSD a year after being reunited with her parents. An 8-year-old boy met the criteria for PTSD and separation anxiety two years after reunification, according to the study.

As part of settlement negotiations with the ACLU in ongoing lawsuits, there were reports last year the U.S. Department of Justice was considering paying families affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy — a possible payout as high as $450,000 per family member. Negotiations fell apart after the news leaked.

Deciding whether these families deserve monetary compensation — and how much — is a different question for lawmakers and the justice system to decide. But there is no question Congress should act, by granting a pathway to citizenship for these families.

It is a benefit they deserve.

Back in 2018, tens of thousands of Americans, including Chicagoans, took to the streets in protest the inhumane zero-tolerance policy. Republicans and Democrats both agreed, and the policy was stopped before it could morph into something unimaginably worse.

Now, in 2022, it should be an easy call for both parties to agree again: Granting legal status to these families is the right thing to do.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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