Sorry, Trump officials. It’s flat wrong to say that tearing asylum-seeking immigrant parents from their children is “no different” from how we handle other “crimes.”
This past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived a problematic argument the Trump administration keeps using to defend its inhumane policy of forced family separations at the border.
The logic goes like this: These immigrant parents are committing crimes by unlawfully sneaking into our country; crimes must be prosecuted; criminal prosecutions result in parents going to jail; and generally speaking, jails cannot house minor children.
As Sessions told radio host Hugh Hewitt, “Every time somebody, Hugh, gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children.”
Other administration officials have used the same analogy.
“That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States — when an adult of a family commits a crime,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told NPR.
But there are two enormous flaws with this “it’s just like how we treat other criminals” argument.
First is that the U.S. government is ripping immigrant children out of their parents’ arms even when the parents didn’t actually commit a crime (not even the crime of crossing the border illegally!).
Second, unlike in the case with other “crimes,” the government has been refusing to reunite immigrant families even after the parents are released from jail.
Let’s talk about the first issue: ripping families apart even when the parents didn’t commit a crime.
There are lots of asylum-seekers who are doing exactly what the U.S. government has instructed them to do if they wish to seek asylum and avoid breaking the law: They are presenting themselves at a port of entry at the border, and not actually crossing illegally. That is, they never commit the crime — a misdemeanor — of entering the U.S. without permission.
And yet they are still being separated from their children.
Consider one of the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union’s case challenging forced separations of asylum-seeking families, a woman listed as “Ms. L.” After fleeing political violence in Congo, Ms. L. presented herself and her 7-year-old daughter at the San Ysidro, California, Port of Entry in November. Ms. L. also passed a “credible fear interview,” the initial screening for asylum-seekers.
She did everything right. She did not unlawfully cross the border. Nonetheless, according to her ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, her daughter was still taken from her.
Ms. L. was sent to San Diego; her daughter, thousands of miles away to Chicago.
After a lawsuit, press coverage and great public outcry, they were finally reunited more than four months later.
Now consider another named plaintiff in the ACLU’s case, listed as “Ms. C.”
She was also seeking asylum with her 14-year-old son; they were fleeing domestic abuse in their home country of Brazil. Unlike with Ms. L.‘s family, though, they did actually cross into the United States without permission. After entering a few feet, they presented themselves to a border guard and requested asylum.
Ms. C. passed a “credible fear interview.” Before her asylum claim could be processed, however, the government charged her for the misdemeanor of illegally crossing the border. She was convicted and spent 25 days in jail. Because the jail could not accept children, her son was sent to a center for “unaccompanied children” in Chicago. Of course, he was only “unaccompanied” because the government rendered him as such.
Nevermind that. Here’s where things really go off the rails.
After Ms. C. was released from prison, she was sent to an immigration detention center while her asylum claim proceeded. Yet government refused to release her son to her.
Ms. C. was ultimately released to a private, nonprofit shelter for immigrants in El Paso, which was also willing to take her son. The government still refused to release the boy.
Government officials never alleged that she was an unfit parent. Authorities just refused to let the family be reunited. After press coverage in The Washington Post and elsewhere, the boy was finally released to her last Tuesday.
This was nine months after they’d first been forcibly separated; eight months after she was out of jail (Sessions’ and Nielsen’s stated rationale for why immigrant parents and kids needed to be separated); and six weeks after she’d been released from any sort of government custody. Her involvement with the criminal justice system was long over, and the government still kept the family apart.
Does this sound “no different” from how we treat any other crime?
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.