A Choice to Be Separated is No Choice at All

May 22, 2020 | National

Parents in three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers were last week presented with this false choice: either separate from their children or agree to be detained together indefinitely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A report by Amnesty International USA describes the events of May 13 and 14 and includes interviews with legal service providers and parents detained at three “family residential centers” in the U.S. It provides chilling accounts of serious due process violations, terrified parents being coerced into signing forms they could not understand, and mocking manipulations by ICE agents. One officer reportedly told several mothers, “It doesn’t matter what you sign because we will do what we want.” The accounts were consistent across the three family detention facilities.

ICE appears to have distributed the forms in response to a court order under the Flores agreement, the longstanding consent decree that sets standards for how the government must treat children in detention. The government was on April 24 told it must expeditiously “make every effort to promptly and safely release” children in light of the pandemic and directed the government to report its progress on May 15. On the evening of May 13, ICE first approached parents with the false choice to separate or be detained indefinitely. On May 15, ICE reported to the court again and again that the reason a child remained in detention was because “Parent Does Not Wish to Separate.”

ICE has the power to release children from detention together with their parents. The Trump administration has previously presented this “binary choice” policy, or false choice for parents to either separate from their children or stay together in detention, as a way to get around standards for the treatment of children in detention. But it doesn’t have to be this way. ICE can release families together, and Congress can exercise its powers of oversight and investigation and condemn family separation once and for all. 

We as a nation cannot allow this administration to exploit COVID-19 as an opportunity to pursue its cruel, anti-immigrant agenda. Don’t look away. Stand with families. 

Read Amnesty International USA’s briefing here.

Read the American Immigration Council’s post on binary choice policy here. Check out the #FamiliesforFamilies campaign here.