Utah Senator Wants To Send Message To Washington About Family Separations At The Border

Feb 5, 2019

A Senate Committee on Friday debated a resolution urging the federal government to end the practice of separating children from their families at the US-Mexico Border. The resolution also called for federal policymakers to act to reunite children who have already been separated.

Salt Lake Democratic Sen. Gene Davis said his proposal was about representing Utah family and legal values to Washington.

"As a long time member of the Child Welfare Oversight Committee, I believe that is our position as a state to keep families together," he said. "Only when the child is in harm, or in harm's way, should we intervene to separate the parents from their child. And the government should always afford a parent full due process rights when the government removes a child from a parent for any substantial period of time."

The Trump administration practice of separating children from their families - as part of what it called a "zero tolerance" policy - came into sharp focus in May and June of 2018 after reporting showed that thousands of children had been removed from family members.

On Friday, Sen. Davis's resolution was met with a certain degree of skepticism by Cedar City Sen. Evan Vickers, who said he wasn't certain whether to believe the news that children were being separated or not:

"I have to admit I really sympathize with what you're trying to do on this but my problem is it stems from some of these news stories," Vickers said. "I'm just not sure that they're valid. And so I don't know what is valid and what's not. What's truth and what's not. And so I'm struggling trying to try to poke an eye at the administration if I don't have all the data and all the facts that I can really confidently say 'yeah, you did wrong, and we need to correct it.' I'm just not there." 

A report last month by the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services - the agency responsible for migrant children who are separated from their guardians - showed that bad bookkeeping meant it was impossible to say just how many children were separated because there had been no systematic process for  identifying, tracking or reuniting children with their families. 

In the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Friday, Sen Vickers went on to question the effectiveness of non-binding resolutions in general.

"A long time ago when I first came into the House, Francis Gibson and I ... came into the House. Rep. Dunnigan, you probably remember when we were having one of those long resolution debates and Francis stood up and said, 'Come on guys, this is only a resolution; the only two people that read this are the guy that drafted it and the janitor in Washington, D.C.' That's just an effort to bring a little levity to the fact that sometimes resolutions go that direction," Vickers said.

But for Salt Lake Democratic Sen. Jani Iwamoto, there were clear reasons for passing resolutions.

"We do do this," she said, "andIi do believe... they're messages for sure but they mean something to the people that they impact - touches people on a direct level - important that we stand up for certain things."

Bill Cosgrove, a Utah pediatrician speaking as a representative of the Utah Chapter for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that the family separation practice was inhumane, to an extreme degree. 

Stephanie Burdick, a member of the public in attendance, supported the resolution, drawing a parallel between Mormon immigrants who came to Utah fleeing persecution, and modern-day immigrants.    

In June, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement condemning the family separation policy, calling it harmful to families, especially young children - and saying they were troubled by the aggressive and insensitive treatment of these families. 

Democratic Senator Luz Escamilla made a motion to advance Senator Davis's resolution with a favorable recommendation. Instead, all of the Republican members of the committee voted to adjourn without further discussion.

Senator Davis said he hoped to get the bill on the agenda for a future meeting of the committee.