Children are collateral damage in Trump’s border war.

Vanderbilt University

Most of us in the US remember the horror of seeing pictures of the tiny body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi laying face down on a Turkish beach. Or the small, ash-covered face of Omran Daqneesh as he was placed in an ambulance in Aleppo.

Alan and Omran became tragic “poster children” for the violence in Syria that lead to one of the most publicized, if not the biggest, refugee crises in modern history. Today, we face a border crisis closer to home. While refugees from violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America have increased dramatically, the recent policies of the Trump administration, including ending Temporary Protection Status and introducing zero-tolerance and the separation of children from their parents, have intensified trauma and harm to refugees and migrants at our own borders.

The most heinous consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy is the separation of children from their parents. In just six weeks, between April 19th and May 31st, nearly 2,000 children were taken from their parents. Some parents were told their children were being taken for a bath, but then didn’t see them again. Hundreds of children are being detained in prison-like facilities, locked in cells with dozens of others, with only food and water and very little care. Guards have been instructed not to touch them, even to comfort or care for them. AP News reports: “Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, met with a 16-year-old girl who had been taking care of a young girl for three days. The teen and others in their cage thought the girl was 2 years old. ‘She had to teach other kids in the cell to change her diaper’, Brane said. Brane said that after an attorney started to ask questions, agents found the girl’s aunt and reunited the two. It turned out that the girl was actually 4 years old. Part of the problem was that she didn’t speak Spanish, but K’iche, a language indigenous to Guatemala. ‘She was so traumatized that she wasn’t talking,’ Brane said. ‘She was just curled up in a little ball’.”

This example points to the special status of dependent children, who cannot yet take care of themselves, and cannot articulate their needs, let alone recount their histories, even when they do speak the same language as their captors or officials. U.S. law provides special protections for children. Yet, these refugee and migrant children have been stripped of all but the most basic protections. Given restricted access to facilities, and the secrecy surrounding them, it is likely that in some facilities even the most basic needs are not being met. If citizen-parents treated their children in the way that our government is treating refugee and migrant children—locking them in cages with instructions not to touch them—they could face investigation by Child Protective Services for child neglect and abuse.

The Trump administration is using refugee and migrant children as political pawns to force Congress to negotiate on the issue of immigration and Trump’s border wall, and to deter parents from seeking asylum or trying to enter the United States illegally. It is morally wrong to punish innocent children for their parent’s illegal entry; and yet imprisonment, detention, and the accompanying trauma is the penalty to paid by refugee and migrant children who reach the U.S. border. The policy of zero-tolerance is cruel and unusual punishment for both parents and children, guilty of illegal entry (a misdemeanor) or not.

It is important to point out that many of these families are refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. In other words, they are not migrants entering the country illegally, except in the sense that most refugees enter their host country illegally, which is to say without proper documentation. Most people fleeing totalitarian regimes have difficulty obtaining passports or other official documentation. The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows refugees to seek asylum whether they enter through a port of entry or not and whether or not they have passports.

The current zero-tolerance policy not only violates national law, but also international law. The fundamental principle of the United Nations Convention on Refugees stipulates that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, what is called the principle of non-refoulement. While poverty and climate change may cause displacement and threaten life and freedom, and while in these cases the distinction between refugees and economic migrants becomes more difficult, international law is clear that those fleeing persecution in countries that cannot or will not protect them, are considered refugees and not migrants. For better or worse, the distinction between refugee and migrant is central to international law protecting refugees from non-refoulement.

The Trump administration is violating international law insofar as they do not recognize the distinction between refugees and migrants. Even those already in the U.S. are not safe. In May, the Trump administration ended the policy of Temporary Protected Status for 90,000 Central Americans living in the United States, threatening to deport refugees who will face violence and possible death if returned. And, for the record, the current administration has set the lowest cap on refugees in U.S. history.

Tens of thousands of women and children flee violence in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and seek asylum in the United States and Mexico. Worldwide, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of homicides of women. Most of the refugees from this region are women escaping repeated rape, assault, extortion, threats from armed criminal gangs, watching their children being recruited into gangs or killed, and watching other family members being murdered or disappeared, while authorities do nothing. Often, they reach a breaking point when their lives are in imminent danger unless they flee immediately. But escaping presents its own dangers, as women are forced to pay exorbitant fees to “coyotes” and then suffer more rape, beating, and sometimes murder by these human traffickers. If they reach Mexico or the United States, these women face detention, a lack of adequate health care, and lengthy interrogations, which too often exacerbate their psychological trauma; and then, there is no guarantee that they will be given asylum rather than sent back home to face more violence.

Today, in addition to these dangers, if they reach what should be safe asylum, women escaping gang violence at home, face the trauma of separation from their children. These women risk their lives to protect their children, only to have them taken away.

People escaping violence and abuse should be welcomed as refugees and not treated as criminals. Even when parents cross the border illegally, their children should not be punished, especially not with the trauma of separation and detention. The Trump administration’s policies are immoral, if not also illegal. The policy of separating children from their parents is cruel and unusual punishment, in many cases levied against refugees, who are protected by international law.


Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of sixteen scholarly books, and the editor of another eleven books, including Carceral Humanitarianism: The Logic of Refugee Detention (University of Minnesota 2017); Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, winner of a 2016 Choice Magazine Award (Columbia 2016); Earth and World: Philosophy After the Apollo Missions (Columbia 2015), Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (Fordham 2013); Knock me up, Knock me down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Film (Columbia 2012); Animal Lessons: How They Teach us to be Human (Columbia 2009); Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (2007); The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression (Minnesota 2004); Noir Anxiety: Race, Sex, and Maternity in Film Noir (Minnesota 2002); and perhaps her best known work, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minnesota 2001). Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has been interviewed on ABC News, appeared on CSPAN Books, and published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Most recently, she has published three novels in the Jessica James Mystery Series (which have won the IPPY award for Best Mystery, The Silver Falchion Award, and The Claymore Award). More information:

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