UPDATE (4/16/19): DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top leadership at the agency were forced out beginning April 7 by an angry President Trump because he and his policy advisors felt they were not committed enough to pursuing an even more aggressive immigration policy. In spite of Trump’s recent denial, DHS officials confirm that a they are exploring a return to the policy of separating migrant children from their families. Other possible measures include more use of active-duty troops at the southern border, an end to birthright citizenship and more focus on building a border wall. Significant majorities of Americans oppose harsh immigration policies, and overall, support immigration to the United States. These draconian policies are not only inhumane, some are potentially illegal, and do not reflect the priorities of most Americans. Congress needs to hear from their constituents their opposition to such brutal immigration policies.
After massive public opposition to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the border, Trump reversed his position on June 20th, 2018 with an executive order ending the practice. However, the Trump administration is again looking to institute policies that separate immigrant parents from children. In 1997, a federal court decided in Flores v. Reno that the government couldn’t detain an immigrant child beyond a reasonable amount of time, defined in 2014 as 20 days. To work around this legal obligation, the Trump administration is considering detaining asylum-seeking families together for 20 days, and then forcing the parents into a “binary choice” – either stay in family detention with their children for an undetermined amount of time, or allow the children to be taken into government custody in the hopes a relatives can seek guardianship. Asking parents to make such a choice is not only immoral, but also potentially illegal under current law.
Beyond the moral and humanitarian implications, unlimited detention of thousands of migrant families is also economically wasteful - “tent cities” cost upwards of $800 per person per night. The reason behind detention is to ensure asylum seekers show up for their court appointments, but alternative methods are also successful in ensuring that outcome. The justice system regularly allows misdemeanor and non-violent offenders to be released pending trial, and tools like electronic monitoring, home visits, or bonds are highly effective. The Family Case Management Program launched in 2016 monitored asylum seekers while allowing them to stay together and out of detention. Immigration advocates praised the program for its 99% compliance rate, cost efficiency, and the additional medical and legal support provided to migrants. The Trump administration ended the program in 2017 to prioritize detention.
Our government has options in how it treats migrants and asylum seekers in our country even as we defend our borders. We must choose the most humane approach available.