Frontera Fund News Trump Watch

Separating Families and Prosecuting Asylum Seekers Is Now U.S. Policy

Customs Border Protection detention
Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

This week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” border policy that’s radical, inhumane, and may violate international law.

“[T]he Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution,” Sessions said on May 7. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. 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 may be separated from you as required by law.”

Yes, Sessions is saying that parents fleeing violence with their toddlers to seek refuge in the United States are child smugglers.

As we reported in January, the Trump administration has been experimenting with separating parents from their children at the border to see if the cruel practice deterred families from entering the U.S. As Vox reported this week, it didn’t, but the administration lied about the numbers and did it anyway.

“This is not business as usual. This is the Trump era.” –Jeff Sessions

Sessions’ policy gets even crazier when you look closer.

The legal way to request asylum in the U.S. is to present yourself to an officer at an official port of entry. However, Border Patrol agents sometimes turn away asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry. (The American Immigration Council filed a class action lawsuit challenging this systemic practice.)

Furthermore, it isn’t always possible for asylum seekers to reach an official port of entry. If you started walking from wherever you are toward the U.S.-Mexico border, without a GPS, how easily could you find an official port of entry? If you were being led by the drug cartels that have taken over the entire swath of southern borderlands and require everyone to pay them to reach the U.S., you would have to go wherever they take you.

Fortunately, the Immigration and Nationality Act says people can apply for asylum “whether or not [they arrive] at a designated port of arrival.” Unfortunately, Sessions doesn’t care. He said at the press conference that asylum seekers who arrive outside of an official port will still have the right to apply for asylum, but they will also be prosecuted.

So even if they try to follow lawful procedure to apply for asylum, they’ll still be prosecuted? Yes. And if they’re bringing their children with them, their children may be separated from them and sent to a detention center, likely for months, which is an incredibly traumatizing experience that will mentally scar these children for the rest of their lives? Yes.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says parents will be reunited with their children after their criminal case is completed. However, in the past, some parents have been unable to rejoin their children for months after they are released from detention. And last year, the Department of Health and Human Services was unable to locate nearly 1,500 out of the 7,635 unaccompanied minors it attempted to contact.

This is not the behavior of a nation founded upon a belief in fundamental human rights. But as Sessions said in his speech, “This is not business as usual. This is the Trump era.”