Washington has a long history of using deportations to strike fear among undocumented workers. In recent years deportations have increased – former president Barack Obama became known as “deporter in chief”.

But Trump has greatly stepped up the drive, mainly against undocumented Latinos, unleashing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to carry out indiscriminate raids where Latinos congregate.

An especially cruel policy has been adopted: tearing children out of the arms of mothers and fathers for the “crime” of crossing the border, deporting the adults and sending the children into US detention centres often hundreds of miles away from their parents or to distant foster homes.

“I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our south-west border”, attorney general Jeff Sessions said in late April. “If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you, as required by law.” 

What law justifying such separations? It doesn’t exist. Sessions is the criminal, ordering kidnappings.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, director for the Americas at Amnesty International, said this was “a flagrant violation of … human rights. Doing so in order to push asylum seekers back into dangerous situations where they may face persecution is also a violation of US obligations under refugee law”.

Writing in the New York Times on 11 June, Michelle Goldberg noted: “There are countless horror stories about what’s happening to immigrants under Trump. Just last week, we learned that a teenager from Iowa who had lived in America since he was 3 was killed shortly after his forced return to Mexico. 

“This month, an Ecuadorean immigrant with an American citizen wife and a pending green card application was detained at a Brooklyn military base where he had gone to deliver a pizza; a judge has temporarily halted his deportation, but he remains locked up. Immigration officers are boarding trains and buses and demanding that passengers show them their papers.” 

From October to April, more than 700 children were seized from their parents and sent away. But since Sessions’ “zero tolerance” illegal decree, child snatching has increased. In the two weeks after his announcement, 650 were torn from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms and sent to detention centres.

The Times’ immigration correspondent, Miriam Jordan, on 7 June related the story of a five-year-old Honduran boy separated from his father, who cried himself to sleep at night with a stick-figure drawing of his family under his pillow. 

The Washington Post reported that 39-year-old Marco Antonio Munoz, also from Honduras, killed himself in a padded cell after his three-year-old was wrenched from his arms.

“We will never know what torments besieged Munoz when he took his own life. But Pramila Jaypal, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington state, recently met with migrant women being held in a federal prison, many of whom, she said, were forcibly separated from children as young as one. Some had their kids physically torn from them. Others were told that they had to go have their photograph taken; when they returned, their children were gone.”

What happens to these children in detention centres is kept secret, even from US senators. Early in June, Oregon senator Jeff Merkley travelled to Brownsville, Texas, to visit one centre in an old Walmart store to see what was happening inside, and was turned away with a police escort. 

He tweeted, “I was barred entry. Asked repeatedly to speak to a supervisor – he finally came out and said he can’t tell us anything. Police were called on us”.

On 12 June, Sessions turned the screw further, announcing that asylum seekers could no longer base their appeal on the dangers they face in their home countries – effectively ending almost all such appeals of those crossing the Mexican border. 

Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter writing at the Intercept, noted that since Sessions’ proclamation, so many parents have been charged that their cases are all lumped together and tried en masse. The result is so grotesque it can only be described as Orwellian. 

“I’ve been to several of these trials in Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso [all in Texas]”, Nathan told Democracy Now!. “What you see is somewhere between 20 and 40-something people … their hands in handcuffs chained to their waists, and their feet shackled.

“They clunk and clang into court … They go through these mass processes in less than an hour, usually. They are instructed to answer [in unison]. So you’ll hear 40 people being asked a question, and they’ll say, ‘Si’ or ‘No’ all at once. It’s really uncanny. It’s shocking. It doesn’t feel like due process.

“One after one after one after one, with only one lawyer [for all of them] they plead guilty: ‘Culpable’, ‘culpable’, ‘culpable’, ‘culpable’. I mean it feels like something out of Abu Ghraib, except that it is completely legal in this country to do this to people.”

In her article, Nathan reported that one judge, Ronald Morgan, asked many of his questions en masse. “This had the astounding effect of eliciting, from otherwise mute and downcast defendants, thundering group responses.

“‘Are each of you satisfied with the help of the lawyer?’ the judge asked the huddled people. ‘Si!’ they roared in unison. ‘Has anyone offered you anything or threatened you?’ Another roar: ‘No!’”

These lawyers, who are public defenders, see each defendant for only one or two minutes.

Then judge Morgan asked individual defendants questions about why they were seeking asylum. They told him about being separated from their children. Nathan reports Morgan himself becoming disturbed by what he heard. 

“It was Thursday, the fourth day of ‘Zero Tolerance’ in his court, and defendants were telling their stories. The judge had just asked Holly D’Andrea, the assistant US attorney handling illegal entry prosecutions that day, if it were true that families were being reunited in detention. D’Andrea sounded uncertain, but she answered she thought it was true.

“‘Tell you what’, the judge said slowly, with a hard edge in his voice, ‘if it’s not, then there are a lot of folks that have some answering to do. Because, what you’ve done, in effect, by separating these children is you’re putting them in some place without their parents. If you can imagine there’s a hell, that’s probably what it looks like’.”