President Trump, who has been widely criticized for his “zero tolerance” border policy that separated migrant children from their parents, has signed an executive order changing the policy.
The new approach will be to keep more families together when they are caught crossing the border illegally, or when they attempt to enter the country legally by applying for asylum. However, officials acknowledged that the order would not help the thousands of children who are already being held in different detention facilities than their parents.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, explained: “For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual.” Brian Marriott of the HHS communications staff later clarified that “our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors in HHS-funded facilities, and reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program.” He said, “reunification is always the ultimate goal.”
According to the order, the Homeland Security Department will strive “to maintain family unity” by keeping adults and kids together in the same jails. That is a departure from the previous practice of transferring the parents to the Justice Department for detention in other locations.
The order allows for exceptions by stating that families will remain together only to the “extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations.” Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches law at Cornell University, warned that “politically, this allows the administration to assert that it wants to detain families indefinitely, but a court won't let them do it.”
The president also called for changes at federal immigration courts, to speed the process of determining whether migrants are deported or awarded legal status. The border crossers, many of whom are escaping poverty and violence in their home countries in Central America, are sometimes languishing for months or longer behind bars awaiting court dates. The order directs the Justice Department to “prioritize” their cases.
Gene Hamilton, a Justice Department lawyer, argued that current laws put “the executive branch in an untenable position.” He asked: “Do we catch and release every alien who comes with a child across our southwest border, or do we release (them)?”
Under the order, the Defense Department and other agencies are to start setting up detention centers to hold families. It is a daunting challenge because most federal lock-ups are designed for single adults. Officials are considering sites in Texas and Arkansas, according to a Pentagon spokesman. He stressed that the Defense Department would only be a “landlord,” with HHS being responsible for housing and feeding the families.
Amnesty International USA dismissed the new policy as nothing more than “another way to punish parents and children for seeking protection.” The organization's Denise Ball declared in a written statement: “Make no mistake, this executive order is a betrayal of families fleeing violence and persecution. The United States cannot continue to treat vulnerable families fleeing horrific violence and persecution like criminals. We must do everything we can to ensure protection for people who have lost everything. It is time to end family detention once and for all.”
Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California called the order “a sham.” Referring to the administration's ongoing policy regarding undocumented immigrants, she tweeted: “By not ending 'zero tolerance,' President Trump is keeping families in jail. All he's done is trade one form of child abuse for another.”
The Women's March organization agreed, declaring that “instead of imprisoning children in separate internment camps away from their parents, this administration will now imprison children in the same internment camps as their parents.” The group alleged that “this executive order was not an act of compassion; locking families in prison camps is not an act of compassion,” adding: “We are more determined than ever to rise up against this administration and demand an end to the zero-tolerance policy that criminalizes immigrants and their kids.”
Trump is merely trying to “placate Americans who have been rightly outraged by their government's repugnant policies, including separating children and babies from their parents and housing them in cages,” according to National Immigration Center Director Marielena Hincapié.
The president insists that Democrats are responsible for the crisis. He claims that they passed legislation requiring the separation of families at the border, even though there is no such law. Some defenders of the policy point to the Flores settlement consent decree, which contended that the separations are legal. However, the decree also required that migrant children be jailed no longer than 20 days.
President George W. Bush called for the release of young detainees within 72 days. During the Obama administration, parents and children were kept together in detention centers. When a judge ruled that the consent decree mandated separating the families, officials began freeing asylum seekers to wait for their cases to be resolved.