Heartbreaking recording of children separated from families at US border

detention-centre-reuters This US Customs and Border Protection photo obtained June 18, 2018 shows intake of illegal border crossers by US Border Patrol agents at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas | AFP PHOTO / US CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION/HANDOUT

The images of children separated from their parents at the US border and being held in cage-like structures had caused distress worldwide. Now, an audio recording of the children by investigative agency ProPublica has raised widespread concern and backlash against the Trump administration.

The Trump administration, in an effort to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the US, as admitted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has been forcefully separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Reportedly, more than 2,700 children have been separated from their parents since April.

These children are being held in warehouses in South Texas in a series of cages, which former first lady Laura Bush compared to the internment camps used for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Some are also being held in tents or box stores that have been converted into Border Patrol detention facilities. Though media was initially denied access, controlled images have been released to the press recently. The images showed children being held in cage-like structures, sitting on steel benches and sleeping on beds laid out on concrete floors.

detention-centre-1-reuters A view of inside US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, US | Reuters

The audio recording released by ProPublica has given a heartbreaking perspective to the situation inside the warehouses. It captured the cries of 10 children between the ages of four and ten, who can be heard crying loudly, asking for their “Mami” and “Papa”. The ProPublica report translates a voice heard in Spanish thus: “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.” This, according to the report, is a Border Patrol agent making a joke of the situation. A six-year-old from El Salvador, according to ProPublica, rattles off the phone number of her aunt. “Are you going to call my aunt so that when I’m done eating, she can pick me up?” she asks in Spanish.

The policy has met with condemnation from many sides, including the government's usual allies. Conservative religious groups and many Republicans have come together to criticise the Trump administration. Democrats have called the act “barbaric” and demanded an end to the policy. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said after visiting an immigration detention centre in San Diego: “Our message to Mr. Trump is, stop this inhumane, barbaric policy.”

Many have equated the government's “zero tolerance” policy to “zero humanity”. Four former first ladies–Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton—have condemned the policy. Trump and his officials are facing questions from human rights activists, children's advocates and immigrant rights activists. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said the practice of separating children from their parents can cause the kids “irreparable harm”.

First Lady Melania Trump | Reuters First Lady Melania Trump | Reuters

Melania Trump, the current first lady, released a statement. “Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” Trump spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”

Meanwhile, Trump has blamed Democrats for the immigration laws and said that his administration is enforcing laws put in place by the Democrats. Many media houses in the US have ripped apart this claim. It was the Trump administration's choice to approach the matter of illegal immigrants as a criminal case instead of a civil case.

“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said while announcing the “zero tolerance” policy on May 7. Administration officials have defended the tactic as necessary to secure the border and suggested it would act as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

The announcement meant that immigrants entering the US illegally would be criminally charged. This applies to those seeking asylum as well. Meanwhile, the country's protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents as they are not to be charged with their parent's crime. The children are hence taken away from their parents and held in separate detention centres.

“The increasing number of children being ripped away from their parents is sickening,” said Democratic Senator Michael Bennet. “Yet the president and his administration continue to perpetuate falsehoods and blame others for their own cruelty.”

Despite widespread criticism and condemnation, Trump's administration has continued to stand by its hostile policy. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen defended the Trump administration’s policy during a speech in New Orleans, saying, “We will not apologise for the job we do, or for the job law enforcement does, for doing the job that the American people expect us to do.”

immigration-protest-reuters People participate in a protest against a recent US immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, outside the Tornillo Tranit Centre, in Tornillo, Texas | Reuters

In an interview with Fox News, Attorney General Sessions cited passages from the Bible in an attempt to establish religious justification. Sessions cited a chapter in Romans while defending the Trump administration's policy of separating parents from their children at the border. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” said Sessions, who is also a Sunday school teacher at the Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. 

When the White House press secretary Sarah Huckebee Sanders was questioned about Sessions's statement, Sanders said she wasn't familiar with the comments. But she went on to say that "it is very Biblical to enforce the law". At the same press conference, journalist Brian Karem expressed what everyone was feeling in the room. “Don't you have any empathy?” he asked Sarah, a mother of two, who just stared at the floor silently.

Trump, meanwhile, is using this issue to push something close to his heart. “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!” he tweeted a few days ago. Trump has been accused of using the children as leverage to force the Democrats to vote on two Republican immigration bills, drafted without inputs from Democrats. One would limit, but not entirely prohibit, family separations, fund Trump’s wall and give legal protections to young immigrants, known as “Dreamers”, who were brought to the country illegally as children.