Friday was the deadline for the government to reunite migrant families with children aged 5 and under that were separated by the “zero tolerance” policy. The Trump Administration claimed to meet the deadline except for those it deemed “ineligible” for reunification. That term furthers the administration’s narrative that immigrants are criminals, but according to The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, only 64 of the more than 700 families deemed ineligible are considered to be that because of criminal records. The government has been slow to share the evidence, so lawyers haven’t always been sure about the charges, but in some cases, being charged—not being convicted—has been enough for the government to declare a family ineligible for reunification. In a few cases, a parent was disqualified for driving while intoxicated, and in others, being wanted in El Salvador was enough.
Blitzer’s article suggests that most of those deemed ineligible are categorized as such because of behavior by Customs and Border Patrol, the agents dealing with detainees, and a lack of preparation for anything beyond detention. In some cases, children have been released to families other than their own, and in others, parents were deported before they were reunited with their children.
The New York Times’ podcast “The Daily”documents how those working with detainees used the promise of reunification with their children as incentive to get them to sign away their asylum application, only to renege on the promised reunification once the parent had left the country. In other cases, they took advantage of the migrants’ illiteracy to confuse them and get them to sign away their request for asylum before they could be reunited with their children. In a number of cases, those pretexts worked, but now the government is using it as an excuse to delay family reunification.
The cruelty that characterizes this sorry exercise is inescapable, but it remains important not to let the government’s language shade the conversation in a way that suggests that some parents don’t deserve their children back, and that others are too criminal to look out for their children’s safety. Such language is consistent with the Trump Administration’s rhetoric since the first minutes of his campaign, but we can’t let his unwillingness to let go of the language of demonization affect the way we think about people seeking safer, more productive lives in America.