Diego Puma Macancela was a kind, vibrant student who enjoyed soccer and spending time with his friends. On the day of his prom, only a few days before his graduation, his life took an unexpected turn. Diego and his mother were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported back to Ecuador.
Diego’s story is, unfortunately, a widespread one for those who come to the United States seeking asylum. In 2019, about 47,000 children were separated from their families. With so many people coming to America to start a new life, one comes to wonder why children are taken away and separated from their families.
The answer is a “Zero Tolerance” policy, first implemented across the U.S.–Mexico border in April 2018 by the Trump administration. Overnight migrants, who used to be given their day in court, become criminals, a concept that in itself is unconstitutional. From its inception, the Zero Tolerance Policy conflicted with U.S. international obligations and policy: Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol.
In particular, the Refugee Convention's Article 31 states:
"Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened…enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence."
Through this policy, the Trump administration inflicted emotional, physical, and physiological pain and suffering on children of migrants. The purpose was to deter immigrants and refugees from attempting to enter the country, making the Trump administration's actions a crime against humanity.
This system functioned until June 2018 but continued unofficially until October 2019. The damage done to thousands of families is likely irreparable.
When a child is apart from their parents, they can experience severe separation anxiety. Thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border between mid-May and the end of June 2018 were subjected to much more than separation anxiety.
According to expert Dylan Gee, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University, "When a child is ripped from a parent, their body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Stress hormones surge, and the body prepares for danger." Gee states that family separation could ruin a child’s brain forever. “The children’s symptoms often differed, from nightmares to aggression to self-harm.”
Forcible separation places children at elevated risks for mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and conduct problems.
Reportedly, the children held in the cages at U.S. ICE child detention centers were between 5 and 17 years old. However, an Associated Press report stated that at least three “tender age” shelters detained preschool-age children as young as 12 months.
In January 2020, another report was issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). It determined that the officially reported number of children separated from their parents was about 4,368, although many claimed the exact number is most likely much higher.
In February 2019, officials stated that removing migrant children from their foster homes would produce immense child health concerns. The Trump administration refused to make any efforts to rejoin parents and their children. John Sandweg, the former head of ICE, agreed, saying, "You could easily end up in a situation where the gap between a parent's deportation and a child's deportation is years,” this means many children may never see their families again.”
“We've spent too much time talking about it and not doing anything. It's not safe here. It hasn't been for months. Years. We should have gone long ago. Ready or not, if we want to live, we have to leave." - UNHCR
Every individual on this planet is human. Regardless of their skin color or ethnicity, requesting asylum at the border should never classify a migrant as a criminal intending to cause havoc. These children have endured unspeakably unjust treatment, and today, many are still unsure of who or where their parents are.
Since President Biden has taken office, he has publicly denounced the Zero-Tolerance Policies use and existence. According to an article by the Washington Post, "Biden announces efforts to reunite migrant families separated by Trump administration." Biden has officially formed a task force, chaired by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to assure family reunification. According to President Biden, the task force will frequently meet with administrators and present their findings and recommendations. The task force will work with representatives of impacted families and associates across the hemisphere to reunite parents with their children.
Many are hopeful the Biden administration will make the change immigrants and refugees deserve. Unfortunately, many of these children will have to face the physical and physiological consequences of their detention. Even though the Zero Tolerance Policy no longer exists, the damage it inflicted will echo through decades. We have to be diligent about stopping hate and fear from governing our lives and our country.
JSA Voices is a forum in which JSA students can express their concerns about local, state, and federal policies. JSA Voices is proud to provide students from across the political spectrum an outlet for expressing their views on issues that matter to them. The views expressed here are the views of the students and not those of the Junior State of America.