Two weeks ago, a New York Times op-ed by Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration asked “Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?” As evidence Richard cited the nomination of a “virulently anti-immigrant” candidate for her previous post, a sharp reduction of refugee aid to the UN, and, in response to criticism of the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, an 80 percent cut to the funding of a UN agency “that runs schools and provides health care to Palestinian refugees”. Richard warned that the collective result of such measures was that the US was “deconstructing a humanitarian approach that was admired by, and depended on, by millions of people throughout the world.”
Last month, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration, in an attempt to discourage illegal border crossings, would separate migrant parents from their children. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also said that her department would “refer 100 percent of illegal Southwest border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution.” Sessions’ DoJ said the separations would ensure that children would not be incarcerated with their parents and the AG himself stated bluntly: “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” To underscore the government’s resolve in upholding the new policy, the US Department of Health and Human Services is constructing a Texas holding facility with large tents and 450 beds for children.
The new zero-tolerance policy has already affected at least 600 children and will shortly affect thousands more. Since October 2017, more than 50,000 children have been detained while trying to enter the United States and the number of adults crossing with children is at record levels. When questioned about the morality of the new approach, Sessions cited a biblical verse, from the Book of Romans, that laws should be observed because “God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, less self-righteously, said the policy respected a court ruling that prevents children who enter the US illegally from being detained for extended periods. Even so, alarmed by horrified media coverage of the new reality, House Republicans have been trying to negotiate a compromise immigration bill that will keep families together during their detention by the Department of Homeland security.
It should be noted that profoundly anti-immigrant measures were in place before the Trump administration. President Obama was often criticized for behaving like a “deporter in chief” and his administration oversaw a huge surge in roundups by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Four years ago, when tens of thousands of young children crossed the border to escape violence in Central America, the Obama administration tip-toed away from its humanitarian obligations to provide adequate shelter and refuge and also did its best to ensure that the children were sent back. Journalists subsequently confirmed that at least five of these children were killed in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula shortly after their deportation. Scores of others likely suffered a similar fate.
What the Trump administration has done is sharpen the teeth of these hardline policies, and made them bite. In doing so, it has laid bare the xenophobia at the heart of the US immigration system. Repeatedly, Sessions’ public comments convey the impression that undocumented arrivals in the US are de facto illegal. That is simply false. Both US and International Law specifically allow for undocumented arrivals to claim asylum. To assert otherwise is disingenuous. Furthermore, even when legitimate asylum claims have been accepted, children have been separated from their parents.
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union sued several federal agencies on behalf of a Congolese woman whose 7-year-old daughter was taken from her and then “sent half way across the country to a facility in Chicago without her mother or anyone else she knows.” The ACLU statement noted that shortly after the separation, the plaintiff “could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother.” The child was separated without “a finding (or even any accusation)” of abuse, and had at that point been separated from her mother for four months. Other US media have chronicled similar outrages. One immigration attorney recently told MSNBC host Chris Hayes about the case of a 53-week-old baby who was appearing in court after being separated from its mother.
Anne Richard’s question is being answered on a daily basis by the new administration. Trump and his xenophobic bureaucrats fully intend to tear down any vestiges of a “humanitarian approach” to immigration and, on recent evidence, they intend to do so as soon as possible.