Editorial: Families seeking asylum deserve compassion and due process


As we honor the love and contributions of our fathers this weekend, we cannot forget the horrific scenes at our nation’s borders, where infants and children are being taken from their parents’ arms by U.S. government agents. President Trump’s assertions to the contrary, there is no law mandating separation of families. We urge the Department of Homeland Security to immediately cease this inhumane practice.

Even as it raises questions about legality and morality, the practice is occurring daily in places like McAllen and along the Texas border as part of the administration’s new zero-tolerance policy to refer anyone caught crossing the border illegally for federal prosecution. Most are charged with misdemeanors.

The policy also applies to families who present themselves to federal authorities to make asylum claims, which is their right under U.S. law. While the parents are referred for prosecution, the children are placed in the custody of a relative or foster home, or held in a shelter that can be hundreds of miles away.

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Hundreds, if not thousands, of families have been separated already under the policy that began in April, Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas, told the editorial board.

In McAllen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials hold the children in fenced enclosures for up to 72 hours while arrangements are made for their transfer to custodial care, the Washington Post reported. Federal officials say this is done for the children’s protection and security.

We must ask, where is the concern for protection and mental well-being when children are separated from their parents in the first place?

Before zero tolerance was announced, families apprehended at the border typically were either placed together in detention centers or released together to live with relatives and to pursue their asylum cases in immigration courts. In the case of the latter, the mother typically was ordered to wear an electronic ankle monitor. This worked reasonably well; studies have shown that court appearance rates were in the 90 percent range, Gilman said.

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While we recognized problems with the previous model of holding mothers and children in family detention centers, at least that practice kept families together.

The news reports emerging from South Texas, citing accounts from attorneys and immigrant advocates, have a profoundly troubling, heart-wrenching commonality: sobbing, frantic children in strange surroundings who can’t possibly understand why they are being pulled from their parents’ arms — and desperate parents who report being left in the dark about their children’s whereabouts and not being allowed to communicate with them.

We can only imagine what such trauma must feel like. A case in May offers insight: A Honduran father who suffered a breakdown after he was separated from his wife and 3-year-old son following their apprehension for trying to cross the border. He was found dead of an apparent suicide in a Starr County jail.

Administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, blame immigrants for these forced separations. Their message is clear: This is on them, not us.

Putting aside that such heartlessness is at odds with the image of America as a place of refuge, the rhetoric masks a common truth, according to advocates. Many of the Central Americans seeking asylum are fleeing gang violence, fear for their lives at home and see the U.S. as a shining beacon of hope.

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What is in our hearts is one thing. What the law says is another, and it holds that people have a right to seek asylum.

Last week, however, Sessions ruled that domestic and gang violence are not grounds for asylum. The administration has made it a point to say that zero tolerance is intended to deter people looking to enter the country illegally.

Gilman calls that unlawful, cruel and troubling – “the idea that you would ruin a child’s mental health and break apart a family all to deter some other family in Central America” from coming here.

Separating children from their parents crosses a line into punishment of people who fear for their lives, said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Texas sociology professor who has interviewed hundreds of Central American and Mexican migrants for his research.

“We pull the carpet from under their feet for doing something that they have every legal right to do: to seek asylum,” he said.

Despite the administration’s strategy to deter migrants by separating families and prosecuting the parents, border arrests continue to rise. More than 50,000 people were arrested crossing the U.S. southern border in May, a 160 percent increase in arrests compared to May 2017, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. It marked the third consecutive month with more than 50,000 arrests.

A Vera Institute of Justice study released this month found no evidence that criminal prosecution and incarceration deters migration.

“These measures are not going to deter desperate people from escaping desperate situations,” said Dan Kowalski, an immigration attorney and the editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin.

The United States has every obligation to protect its borders and to enforce immigration laws. Breaking up families whose “crime” is to seek refuge in the U.S., however, is unnecessarily cruel and inhumane. Criminally prosecuting the parents and separating them from their children, then claiming it’s their fault, dehumanizes them. Perhaps that is the government’s end game: to condition Americans into seeing these families as not being worthy of our compassion or of due process.

This is not who we are as a nation. We cannot be silent when our immigration policy terrorizes families and tears them apart. Separating children from their parents is barbaric and it must end.

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