Area politicians decry family separation policy

  • Democratic lawmakers protest as President Donald Trump meets at the Capitol, Tuesday, with House Republicans to discuss a GOP immigration bill. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., center, holds a photo of a young boy at the border as she is joined by, from left, Reps. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., Juan C. Vargas, D-Calif., and Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. AP PHOTO

  • FILE - In this Monday, June 18, 2018 file photo, Akemi Vargas, 8, cries as she talks about being separated from her father during an immigration family separation protest in front of the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. District Court building in Phoenix. Child welfare agencies across America make wrenching decisions every day to separate children from their parents. But those agencies have ways of minimizing the trauma that aren't being employed by the Trump administration at the Mexican border. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File) Ross D. Franklin

Published: 6/19/2018 11:22:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For area politicians, the reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border is pretty uniform: “horrible,” “reprehensible” and “cruel.”

More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents after crossing the border since early May, according to numbers from the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS.

“Little children should not be used as bargaining tools,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, said Tuesday. “The fact that they’re being held hostage by Donald Trump so he can get a stupid wall along our border … it’s despicable. Children are not bargaining chips, period. And neither are their parents.”

Republicans have put forth two immigration bills that are expected to face votes this week that would allow families to remain together. But the bills include provisions that Democrats are unlikely to support — curbs to legal migration, money for a border wall and allowing children to be detained indefinitely together with their parents.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, told the Gazette that he has a hunch neither of those bills will pass.

“What we need here is to get some of these Republicans from Florida, Texas and California to break ranks with the president and to cast a vote with us,” he said, describing Trump’s executive action implementing the policy as “inhumane.” “We ought not to have to even use legislation to get him to reverse his position.”

Neal’s position — that legislation shouldn’t be needed to fix a situation Trump created himself — was shared by other congressional representatives.

“This is up to the president of the United States,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at a recent town hall in Newburyport. “All he has to do is pick up the phone and say, ‘Stop taking babies from their mothers.’ That is entirely within the power of the president of the United States and if he is not willing to do that, then he needs to own it, because it’s on him.”

Warren’s staff said she was not available on Tuesday to answer questions from the Gazette. Sen. Ed Markey did not return a call placed to his office, and did not answer questions via email.

Amid the pressure on Trump and Republicans from Democrats — including the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation — Republican Gov. Charlie Baker this week rescinded his offer to send a helicopter and two military analysts from the Massachusetts National Guard to the southern border, citing the “inhumane treatment of children.”

“We won’t be supporting that initiative unless they change that policy,” Baker told reporters at a press conference on Monday.

However, Baker’s Democratic challengers in this year’s gubernatorial election — Bob Massie and Jay Gonzalez — slammed the governor for considering such a move in the first place.

“He should have never done it to begin with,” Gonzalez told the Gazette during a visit to Northampton on Monday afternoon.

Attorney General Maura Healey also criticized the Trump administration’s policy, joining a coalition of 21 of her counterparts across the nation to call on DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the separations.

McGovern was also among the voices calling for the resignation of Nielsen over the policy.

Challenging the policy

Beyond just rhetoric, local elected officials are taking various actions to attempt to actually stop the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border.

One such attempt is the Keep Families Together Act, which would prohibit DHS from separating children from their parents except under extraordinary circumstances, limit criminal prosecutions of asylum seekers, require Customs and Border Protection agents to complete annual child welfare training, establish a preference for family reunification, develop procedures for separated families to reunite and require a biannual report on the separation of families.

The bill has been backed by every single Senate Democrat, and the House’s companion bill had support from nearly all Democratic representatives as of Tuesday afternoon.

Procedural avenues also exist for Democrats to challenge the family separation policy.

McGovern mentioned using the appropriations process to try to prohibit government funds from being used to implement the policy. Warren has said she will use her position on the Senate Banking Committee to hold up the nomination of Trump’s pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees budgets and policy at DHS — until she turns over documents related to any role she played in the family separation policy.

Markey in a statement called for the Government Accountability Office to determine whether the “zero tolerance” family separation policy could be considered a rule, and would therefore be subject to a congressional vote of disapproval.

History lesson

Many elected officials have spoken of the separation policy as being “un-American” or against the country’s “values.”

“Immigration is about America’s values. America believes in family unification, not in tearing families apart, and it sure as heck does not believe that mothers that come to our borders asking for asylum should have their babies ripped out of their arms,” Warren said.

But congressional candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running against Neal in the First District’s Democratic primary, said elected officials need to recognize that the country has a long history of mistreating families and children since its inception.

“That history is a very important aspect of creating policy moving forward,”she said.

Indeed, U.S. history is full of moments of state-sanctioned separation of children from their parents — for example, black children sold away from their parents during slavery and Native American children torn from their families to be sent to white boarding schools.

For the present, McGovern said the focus should be on pressuring Trump to end family separation. But there’s little dispute that bigger changes are needed.

Amatul-Wadud said the country’s immigration system needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt. “We definitely need comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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