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How the US could make amends for family separations

Rep. Joaquin Castro explains why he’s calling for a human rights commission.

A man from Venezuela seeking asylum in the United States holds his daughter at the entrance to the Paso del Norte International Bridge on February 28, 2020, in Ciudad Juárez. 
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Three years after the Trump administration’s family separation policy began, lawyers are still trying to find the parents of 545 affected children. Many of the parents were deported, but despite extensive on-the-ground searches by private groups in Central America, they are nowhere to be found.

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election, reckoning with the long aftermath of separations will be part of his promise to reverse the Trump administration’s legacy on immigration. In a recent campaign ad, Biden offered up a starting point for a solution: He would convene a task force to “reunite those children with their parents.”

That might seem like the bare minimum that the federal government should be doing to make amends for a policy condemned by members of both parties as inhumane. But it would be more than the Trump administration has done, despite President Donald Trump’s claims to the contrary during the final presidential debate.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and vice chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has called for more extensive measures to reckon with family separations and the treatment of people seeking asylum and other protections in the US. He wants to create a human rights commission to investigate the policy, ensure it never happens again and hold the Trump administration officials behind it to account. And he thinks that the US should give them legal status, if they want it.

I spoke with him about what that commission would look like, what kind of relief we could see the next Congress and administration administer to separated families, and how the State Department could assume a bigger role in protecting asylum seekers. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Nicole Narea

I know you’ve publicly called for a human rights commission to grapple with family separations. Do we have a model for something like that, and what would be the mission of that kind of commission?

Rep. Joaquin Castro

I believe that, given the human rights abuses during the Trump administration, it would be appropriate for the United States to create either a human rights commission or for the Congress to create a select committee that investigates these abuses, makes recommendations for policy changes so that they don’t happen again in our country, and identifies individuals who should be held responsible and accountable for their actions. I think that would be the right thing to do and also, in many ways, necessary for our country.

It could be an independent commission, or it could be an official committee. For example, Speaker Pelosi created a select committee on the environment on climate change at the beginning of this term. It’s something that we should discuss in Congress, and also have a discussion with the new Biden administration about what that would look like. I think there are a lot of folks who have inputs offer, including members of the public.

Nicole Narea

I’m curious about what exactly it would mean to hold Trump administration officials accountable for family separations. What kind of power does Congress or the next administration have to do that? Because I know that, legally, there are certain immunities that they may have.

Joaquin Castro

The first thing would be to prevent it from happening again. The commission should be able to recommend to the Congress any policy changes that need to be made. But then, secondly, [its aim should be] identifying individuals who intentionally abused human rights and who may have violated department policy and also violated the law during the course of their actions.

Nicole Narea

Could this lead to prosecution?

Joaquin Castro

The commission itself would not necessarily have the authority to prosecute. But just as with other committees, information could be forwarded to the Department of Justice for consideration of legal proceedings. Ultimately, any decision to prosecute would be separate and apart from the commission itself.

Nicole Narea

On top of calling for a commission on family separations, you have also already introduced a bill with Sen. Blumenthal to provide families separated by the Trump administration legal status in the US and a path to citizenship as a step towards making things right. Do you think that there’s room to expand on your bill in the next Congress? And should families be given other kinds of compensation, perhaps monetary in nature?

Joaquin Castro

I think those are things that we need to consider. To be quite honest with you, I feel like we’ve all been in this haze of illegality now for a while, where people’s rights are being violated and we’re constantly having to respond in a defensive way to stand up for people’s rights. And so it’s going to take a little bit of time to sit back and reflect on the scope of what has happened, and also how exactly we should proceed in making these people whole.

But one of the things I believe that we absolutely should do is make sure they’re reunited, and allow them a place in the United States. That’s why Sen. Blumenthal and I proposed that piece of legislation, because we believe that these families deserve that, after their treatment by the United States government. These are people that were seeking asylum, fleeing violence and oppression in their own homeland.

Nicole Narea

Of course, right now, the people who are trying to reunite these families on the ground in Central America are private actors. So do you think that the US government should specifically put money towards helping reunification efforts?

Joaquin Castro

Yeah, in addition to the human rights commission or select committee on human rights, I also believe that the United States government should make greater efforts to reunite the families that were intentionally separated. And the US Department of State should take the lead role in helping on that reunification.

The US Department of State is constantly working with other nations and obviously has personnel in countries around the world. So it makes sense that the department would be the one that would be primarily responsible for taking the lead.

And at this point, I also don’t trust the [Department of Homeland Security]. They have repeatedly lied to the Congress and to the American people. They have looked the other way at human rights abuses and in some instances, their people have partaken in human rights abuses. And so I think that it’s time to allow another agency to take the lead in reuniting these families.

I say that as someone who, from the beginning, thought they should have empowered some independent person or groups to use the levers of government to reunite these folks rather than just giving a deadline to the Department of Homeland Security and asking them to do it themselves. I mean, these are the same people that caused the separations without concern for having the ability to reunite the children with their parents. So why is why would a judge trust them with the responsibility of undoing the mess that they created?

Nicole Narea

I think that kind of speaks to something else that you’ve been talking about publicly recently, which is the role that the State Department should be assuming in Central America. Family separations has understandably been the focus of the public discourse around Trump’s immigration policies, but it’s obviously not the only way that Trump has sought to crack down on asylum seekers from the region. I’m curious about what you see as the kind of role that the State Department should be assuming more broadly here.

Joaquin Castro

I’d start with the legislative branch of government. The Congress has to pay more attention to what happens in the Western Hemisphere, including Central America. There are things that happen in places like Latin America that would get a lot more attention from the United States government or the United States Congress if they happened in other parts of the world.

But the executive branch also has work to do in assuming a greater role on these issues. And the way I see it, they have been relegated in their work in favor of the Department of Homeland Security. And that’s a shame because I think the State Department has a lot more to offer. I mentioned one piece of that, which is actually getting in there and doing the primary work of reuniting these children with their parents. But also, in terms of refugees, the State Department and our government should do everything we can to increase the refugee cap. I believe that we should take it up about 120,000 next year. The Trump administration shrunk it to less than 20,000.

And so that means that there’s a lot of work that will have to be done at the State Department. You literally have people that are waiting on the other side of the border living in squalor and dangerous conditions who are seeking refuge. Those cases need to be considered in short order.

Nicole Narea

I wonder if you think that kind of presents a funding challenge, because practically speaking, there’s sort of a lot of rebuilding to do at State, given the brain drain that’s occurred under the Trump administration and the gutting of resources.

Joaquin Castro

That’s going to be a challenge. The Trump administration has created a situation where morale is pretty low, where it’s getting harder to retain good employees. Less people are taking the Foreign Service exam for entry into the department. And so this is not a one-week fix here. This is going to take some time to actually accomplish. But all of it is very important work on fixing the structural issues within the department.

I believe we should pursue a Foreign Service Act in 2021. Fixing those structural issues and the substantive part of helping refugees and asylum seekers around the world is something that we need to equip the State Department to be able to do.

Nicole Narea

When I spoke to your brother during the primaries last year, he was discussing a Marshall Plan for Central America to help address the underlying causes of migration. Do you think that’s something that the Biden administration should explore?

Joaquin Castro

I agree with the idea of a Marshall Plan for Central America. And fortunately, Vice President Biden worked a great deal on assisting the nations in the Northern Triangle [of Central America] when he was Vice President. I think there’s a commitment from the Vice President to the region and I’m hoping that they’ll work with us.

You know, we have to stop seeing these asylum seekers as simply threats to the country. There are folks in Washington who, for their own political purposes, would have you see every brown, poor asylum seeker as somebody waiting to harm an American.

That is a stereotype that has damaged our ability to see these people for who they really are — people who are being violently oppressed in many cases by rampant drug gangs and other elements of society in Central America over which these people do not have control. The governments of these countries clearly don’t have the control that they should over these groups. And so there’s a lot of rebuilding that will go into that.

But it’s also about helping build up the economic capacity and prosperity of the economies there. Because I don’t believe that people want to trek over 1000 miles to leave their home and go to someplace they’ve never been to before. It speaks to the urgent need to work with Central America in a holistic way, in a way that gives people a place within their own country where they feel safe and where they feel they have economic opportunity and, at the same time, doesn’t see these people simply as threats to Americans.

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