A report last week by the federal inspector general for Health and Human Services adds shocking new layers to what ranks among the most appalling U.S. transgressions of basic human rights since Japanese-American internment. It found that the Trump administration may have separated "thousands" more migrant children from their families at the southern border than previously revealed.
No one, apparently, can say with certainty exactly how many children have been subjected to this policy, which in itself exposes an appalling lack of administration accountability. That's the first of many questions that Congress and the public must press relentlessly until it's definitively answered.
The administration announced its "zero tolerance" immigration policy in April 2018 to criminally prosecute all unauthorized border crossings. As part of that policy, children were separated from parents who were arrested after crossing.
Previous administrations separated small numbers of migrant families, particularly when the children's safety was in question, but the new policy made separations the rule rather than the exception. Within three months, more than 2,700 migrant children had been taken from their parents and put in holding centers or with foster families. That prompted litigation and such a loud bipartisan public outcry that President Donald Trump ordered the practice halted in June.
But the new report reveals the administration actually began large-scale separation of families months before the formal announcement of its zero tolerance policy, and "thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017." Health and Human Services "has faced challenges" identifying separated children, the report adds.
The administration insists it wasn't using child separations as a deterrent for future migrants — though Trump himself has made public statements indicating that's exactly what they were doing.
NBC News obtained an early written draft of the zero tolerance policy, with margin notes showing that officials intentionally sought to target increased prosecutions on migrant parents — as opposed to childless migrants — so those family separations "would be reported by the media and ... have a substantial deterrent effect" on future border crossings, the network reported last week.
All criminal prosecutions are, at least in part, designed to deter future lawbreakers. But a new level of cruelty is introduced when any administration designs a deterrence policy around intentionally subjecting children to severe emotional trauma by ripping them away from their parents.
This policy will stand as one of the most morally repugnant actions this country has undertaken in modern times.
Courts have ordered the administration to provide a full accounting of the numbers, whereabouts and conditions of these children. The inspector general's report shows that still hasn't happened. Congress must unrelentingly demand that it does.
It's bad enough that America has become a nation that snatches children; it must not also become a nation that loses them.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH