Father Gus Puleo

Since the implementation of the “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal entry into the United States on April 6 by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, criminal prosecutions of unauthorized border crossers have increased dramatically.  In other words, according to this new policy, those apprehended illegally entering the United States would be criminally charged, which generally leads to children being separated from their parents.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Official testified last month to Congress that between May 6 and May 19, 658 children were separated from 638 parents because of the increased prosecutions. This brings the total of official separations to more than 2,500 as of today.

I understand fully the need for security of our borders and country, but separating arriving families at the border does not alleviate security concerns. Immigration and child advocates, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Nations have all condemned the practice of separating families at the border.

However, the United States government has defended its actions by saying that it is protecting children and making clear that illegal border crossers will be prosecuted regardless of their family circumstances.  In theory, forced family separation is supposed to have a deterrent effect on the undocumented who are thinking about making the journey to the United States.

But a new study says there is no evidence that these prosecutions have had an impact on the migrants’ decisions to come to the United States. The only effect of this policy is that it clogs the courts and erodes due process.

Using children as weapons against their own parents is not part of Christian or American ideals of justice, care and due process. Taking away someone’s child as a punishment against the parent fails to consider the terror and trauma suffered by the child, who is completely innocent.

Rupturing the bond between parent and child causes scientifically proven psychological trauma, aggression and toxic stress responses to both parents and children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that separating parents from their children as they seek refuge in the United States risks exacerbating an already emotionally and physically stressful time with additional trauma. The academy recommends that children remain with parents, family members and caregivers during any time of anxiety or stress.

In addition, immigration experts claim that children who enter the U.S. with their parents are less likely to have other family members already living in this nation, meaning that these children would most likely be placed in short-term or long-term foster care. This action would massively increase the number of cases of foster care in a system that is already over-burdened.

Forcibly separating children from their parents is ineffective in the policy of deterrence and safety, and it is contrary to Catholic values. Family unity is the core of our American immigration system and also a fundamental element of Catholic social teaching.

Children are a blessing from God. Taking a child away from their parent and interfering with the basic constitutional right of family unity is one of the most terrible actions one can do, and it needs the most compelling reason possible for it to be placed in effect. In the Bible in Psalm 127:3 we read that “Children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward.” In Mark 10:14 Jesus insists, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Children are our present but also our future hope!

Children and their families will continue to come even though there are great risks involved, including family separation, because the root of this problem is individual and state-run violence, gang recruitment, poverty and no educational opportunities available in their home countries. Our foreign policies should address these factors as we seek to repair a broken immigration system.

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Father Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown and adjunct professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.