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An Open Letter Regarding Child Separation

July 12, 2018

An Open Letter Regarding Child Separation

                On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA), a voluntary bar association comprised of over 1,000 lawyers in the South Florida community, this statement addresses recent events concerning the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border.

                Recently our country has been consumed with reports concerning the separation of minor children from their families at our nation’s border. Minor children—as young as toddlers and even babies—were being separated from their parents due to a so-called “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy enacted by the U.S. Department of Justice.  In short, as part of the Trump Administration’s border enforcement strategy, in May 2018 the DOJ announced that it would prosecute every illegal entry case presented to it, including where the alleged offender attempted to enter with his or her children.  This policy resulted in the criminal prosecution of approximately 2,000 Central American and Mexican migrants (including those seeking asylum) who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with their minor children, and, consequently, the knowing separation of children from their parents due to these criminal proceedings. See Pete Williams, “Sessions: Parents, Children Entering U.S. Illegally Will be Separated,” NBC NEWS (May 7, 2018) (U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. . . If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”). Some government officials even stated that this enforcement approach would serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

                The controversy over this policy transcended legal and political circles.  Everyone has followed this story. It was a story closely followed by everyone.  For most everyone can empathize with the anguish of being forcibly torn from a son or daughter or from a mother or father.  And, as Americans, putting politics aside, we were justifiably alarmed, for it appeared that our country had failed to adhere to its paramount standards of decency and morality. This is an especially sensitive matter for the Cuban American community, which had so many of its sons and daughters emigrate to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors on the Pedro Pan freedom flights. Our community knows firsthand the lasting emotional scars that can result from even a temporary separation from one’s family.  We lived it—and still do.  And, though the circumstances are different, we sought asylum in the U.S. for reasons similar to those families crossing the border now: because we wanted a better life for our families.

                In the end, the public outcry to the Administration’s policy was overwhelming and our democracy worked. Pictures and audio clips of young children in holding facilities; stories about parents desperately seeking to be reunited with their children; and accounts of children who could not be “found” after they were placed in custody of HHS—it was all too much to bear.  President Trump acknowledged this, signing an executive order requiring that parents who are prosecuted for illegal entry be held with their children.  We applaud the President’s executive order.  But it is not enough.  It can be rescinded, by this Administration or a future one. There is too much at stake here to allow that. A permanent solution is needed. We therefore call on Congress to enact legislation ensuring that this will not happen again—that our government will not divide families as a means to penalize and deter those whose try to emigrate to this country in search of a better life (even if they have violated the law in doing so).

                In concluding, we note that this statement is not a political message on the issue of general immigration policy, or a condemnation of government efforts to enforce our immigration laws.  To be sure, the government is within its authority to prosecute those illegally entering the U.S. It is a valid enforcement approach, setting aside political considerations as to whether our underlying immigration policies should be overhauled.  It is not valid, however, to tear families apart in these situations.  It is immoral.  And it is beneath the dignity of this great democracy.


Jorge L. Piedra