The Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry into the U.S. is inhumane and will split up families seeking safety, a Catholic analyst of migration policy warned.
“If implemented this will lead to a drastic increase in forcible family separation at the border,” Ashley Feasley, director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA May 10.
“Most importantly it is inhumane and goes against our Catholic values and the sanctity of the family,” she said.
The policy change means prosecution of people who illegally cross the southwest border and the separation of many children from their parents.
Feasley stressed that entering the border with one’s child is not automatically an instance of child smuggling.
“Many of these families are willingly turning themselves over to Border Patrol. They are not hiding. They are asking for protection, they are vulnerable and looking for safety,” she said.
“[The policy change] will also erode judicial efficiency, taking away resources to prosecute the most dangerous, in favor of prosecuting every parent,” she said. The new policy could cost up to $620 per night to detain a family of one parent and two children.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed law enforcement officials in Arizona and California in two May 7 speeches.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said, according to National Public Radio. “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 will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”
Border agents detained close to 40,000 unauthorized immigrants on the Mexico border each in March and April alone. They include 5,000 to 10,000 families and underage minors traveling alone.
The Department of Justice will send 35 more prosecutors and 18 more immigration judges to handle the caseload, Sessions has said.
The attorney general said there is now “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossings. The goal is for “100 percent” of all people who cross the border illegally to face charges of “improper entry by an alien,” which can result in up to six months in prison. Alleged violators will be referred to federal prosecutors through the Department of Homeland Security.
Thousands more migrants could be held in detention facilities or children’s shelters. Families with juveniles will be separated and the minors will be sent to separate facilities.
Under previous practice, people caught illegally crossing the border were returned to Mexico after a guilty plea and a brief detention. The violation is a misdemeanor under federal law.
Sessions said the Department of Justice would take up as many referrals from DHS “as humanly possible.”
However, Feasley warned that there are many dangers of family separation. It is “extremely traumatic” for children to experience, especially after a lengthy, stressful trip to the U.S. Very young children have been separated and left with strangers, many of whom do not speak their language.
“Then these children are put into shelter facilities which are confined spaces. The experience is doubly traumatizing,” Feasley continued. “The American Academy of Pediatrics has cautioned against the long lasting emotional trauma and harm that separation can cause children.”
Some migrants have tried to challenge their treatment under U.S. authorities.
One Honduran woman, Olga George, was charged with illegal entry and separated from the four young children accompanying her. She has retained lawyers who charge that the Justice Department is discriminating against her for being a Central American.
A Congolese woman who sought asylum was detained and separated from her young daughter for months until DNA testing during court proceedings confirmed their identities.
If immigrants detained at the border have valid asylum claims, they could still receive federal criminal convictions on their record regardless if they are judged to have a right to stay in the U.S., CNN reports. However, there are no special arrangements under the current plan for those who claim asylum when they are detained.
Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen officially enacted a “zero-tolerance” policy on Friday May 3.
Nelsen has said that families are separated only for the children’s safety or when family relationships can’t be proven. Under federal law and court decisions, children must be released from detention quickly. Previously, this meant entire families were released rather than separated.
DHS has already referred over 30,000 illegal entry cases to the Department of Justice, an increase of 61 percent over Fiscal Year 2017.
Feasley said the new policy will not address “the pervasive root causes of migration.” Migrants are fleeing state- or community-sanctioned violence, poverty, lack of educational opportunity, forced recruitment into gangs, and domestic abuse, among other grave problems that compel children and families “to take the enormous risks of migration.”
“These are the factors that must be addressed as we look to repair our broken immigration system,” she said.
Feasley also had particular recommendations for Catholics.
“Catholics should try to remember the human dignity of all families and children who arrive and look to assist these families in productive ways that help them comply with our immigration laws--ensuring that they know their rights and responsibilities in this country,” she said. She suggested helping migrants get legal counsel, accompanying them to legal proceedings, and “welcoming and praying with and for these families in our parishes.”
“As Pope Francis says, they are not a problem or a burden but an opportunity for encounter,” she told CNA.