Family Separations are Inhumane. Do They Also Damage our Standing in the World?

See Update concerning President Trump’s 6/20/2018 Executive Order here.

By now you are well aware that the U.S. government is separating children from their parents who cross our southern border seeking asylum. In the past, these individuals typically were held together short term in “family detention centers” to be released to await their hearings in civil immigration courts after paying bond or with an ankle monitor, once they were found by immigration officials to have a “credible fear” of returning to their home countries.

Attorney General Jeff Session’s April 2018 announcement that anyone entering the U.S. without permission (a misdemeanor federal crime when it is the first time) will be criminally prosecuted, set the stage for children being separated from their parents.   When parents are charged with a federal crime, rather than a civil immigration violation, they are detained in facilities for suspected criminals. The law prohibits their children being held with them.

Two points are unequivocably clear:

Ÿ–   The Attorney General’s new “zero tolerance” policy that results in separation of parents and children is a choice intended to deter asylum seekers coming from Central America as confirmed by various administration officials. While many in the administration, including President Trump, say the government must separate families, that is simply untrue. The government has the discretion to process asylum seekers in the civil immigration system without referring them to criminal prosecution, as indeed happened with the bulk of asylum-seeking families until the new zero tolerance policy was announced. Even when referring asylum-seeking parents for criminal prosecution, the government has the discretion to use alternatives to detention, such as electronic ankle monitors, so that parents and children can stay together.

—  “Democrats” are not to blame for the separation of children from their parents after crossing the border.   A bipartisan Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 to carry out U.S. obligations under international law, and a humanitarian imperative, to allow those seeking safety from persecution in their home countries to apply for asylum.   The right to ask for asylum is the same regardless of a person’s manner of entry, whether through an airport or land port immigration inspection post, or across the U.S. border without permission; all have the legal right to apply for asylum in a civil proceeding before immigration authorities. There is no requirement to separate asylum seeking families under the immigration laws, and prosecuting asylum seekers for misdemeanor illegal entry does not eliminate their right to request asylum.

For a more detailed explanation of the administration’s policy shift, read this interview with Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service, now at the Migration Policy Institute.

Deservedly, the outcry domestically against forcibly taking children from their parents is growing, with a recent poll showing two-thirds of the public, as well as faith leaders, former First Ladies, and even the Chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Committee in the House, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) opposed to the practice. On June 19, 2018, thirteen Republican senators, including Maine’s Susan Collins, joined the chorus, and asked the Attorney General to stop separating families under the “zero tolerance” policy.

As we challenge what this extreme immigration policy says about the current values of our country and the strength of our democracy, we must also worry about our standing in the world.  This is yet another move by the Administration that may be causing those abroad to question the U.S.’s direction, leadership in the world community, and its attitude towards immigrants and human rights.  The “zero tolerance” policy’s effects on families is not going unnoticed abroad, as this June 19th sampling of reporting from British, French, Italian, Spanish and German mainstream media demonstrate.

Already, the U.S. has seen a slump in visitors and international graduate students  that may be related to the current administration’s immigration policies and rhetoric.  Will the U.S.’s descent into taking children from their parents drive more foreigners to look to countries other than the U.S. for their vacations, their graduate studies, and their work opportunities?  It is too early to tell, but at a time when our nation and Maine need more, rather than fewer immigrants to fill the ranks of our shrinking talent pool, the image of a heartless U.S. is likely unhelpful.

Senators King and Collins, and Representative Pingree, have all spoken out against the family separation policy.   As of this writing, Representative Poliquin has yet to make a formal statement, though he is on record voicing his opposition. Sen. King and Rep. Pingree have also co-sponsored bills in the Senate (S. 3036) and in the House (H.R. 5954) that would put safeguards in place to prevent taking children from their parents absent findings of abuse, neglect, or that they are victims of trafficking or are not in fact the parents’ children.

Maine employers should call on Maine’s Congressional delegation to pass stand-alone legislation urgently that will stop the wholesale, nondiscretionary removal of children from their parents in any immigration enforcement action. President Trump has signaled that he will only sign legislation that also includes drastic cuts to legal immigration and funding for the border wall.   Keeping immigrant families together, and preserving our country’s values should not be held hostage to the administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.