The Trump administration has summoned at least 70 children under 1 year old to immigration court for their own deportation proceedings since Oct. 1, according to new Justice Department data provided exclusively to Kaiser Health News.
These children, who may be staying with a sponsor or in a foster care arrangement, need frequent touching and bonding with a parent and naps every few hours, and some are of breastfeeding age, medical experts say. They're unable to speak and still learning when it's day versus night.
"For babies, the basics are really important. It's the holding, the proper feeding, proper nurturing," said Shadi Houshyar, who directs early childhood and child welfare initiatives at advocacy group Families USA.
The number of infants under age 1 involved has been rising — up threefold from 24 infants in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, and 46 infants the year before.
The Justice Department data show that a total of 1,500 "unaccompanied" children, from newborns to age 3, have been called in to immigration court since Oct. 1, 2015.
Roughly three-fourths of the children involved are represented by a lawyer and they have to make their case that they should stay in the United States.
Officials who review such deportation cases say most children under 1 cross the border with a parent and their deportation cases proceed together.
But some of the infants were deemed "unaccompanied" only after law enforcement separated them from their parents during the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy. The children were sent to facilities across the U.S. under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"An immigration judge has no discretion," Benson said. "There's no 'I'm hearing the mom wants the kid, I'm going to decide what's best,'" she said. Instead, "it's 'the government has charged you with being removable from the U.S. Do you have evidence to show you have a right to be here?'"
Benson recounted being in immigration court in 2014 when a judge asked for a crying baby to be removed from the courtroom. She said she paused to inform the judge that the baby was the next respondent on the docket — and asked that the child's grandmother stand in.
The stakes for the babies, and any migrant fleeing violence, are high, said Paul Wickham Schmidt, a former immigration judge who retired in 2016 after 13 years on the bench in Arlington, Va.
"Final orders of deportation have consequences," he said. "For something that has a very serious result, this system has been described as death penalty cases in traffic court."
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a judge specializing in juvenile cases in Los Angeles, acknowledged that the administration narrowed a directive on how much judges can assist juveniles in court. Still, she said, judges do their best to ensure that young children get a fair hearing.
At the same time, children can be strapped for resources, Blessinger said.
She described one client whose 7-year-old daughter received legal support from a New York-based charity. Even in that case, she said, the organization acted simply as a "friend of the court" — rather than a full-fledged attorney — requesting delays in proceedings until the child and mother could be reunited. That finally happened Tuesday night, she said.
"It's the saddest experience. These people are not going to be recovering anytime soon," she said. "The parents are crying even after they're reunited."
[KHN's coverage of children's health care issues is supported in part by the Heising-Simons Foundation. Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.]