When Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly confirmed this week that the Trump administration was considering separating immigrant mothers from their children at the border – a calculated way to deter other families from making the journey to seek refuge in the United States – Lisa Koop immediately thought of the fears and hardships many of her clients faced.
There was the mother and teenage son who fled El Salvador immediately after gang members slipped a note under their door, giving the boy an ultimatum: Join the gang or die. They didn’t doubt the threat, since a teenage neighbor had already been murdered after refusing to join.
That letter was a key piece of evidence, it turned out. “The mother had folded it up and carried it with her in her bra, even through detention at the border, basically smuggling this piece of evidence throughout her whole journey,” says Ms. Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “So we were able to explain to the court exactly why this family faced death if they were returned, and they were granted asylum.”
For years, deteriorating conditions in Central America, and what Secretary Kelly himself has described as “unimaginable violence” in the region, has driven a surge of families and unaccompanied minors traveling through Mexico to reach the US border. Advocates and many Democratic lawmakers this week have recoiled at the Trump administration’s proposed policy of separating mothers from their children. For their part, officials say the surge is so large that such a drastic policy is necessary.
“I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America from getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico into the United States,” Kelly told CNN earlier this week.
Whether the policy gets implemented, however, is another matter. Besides the rather chilling image it would portray to the rest of the world, separating children from parents would create big legal and logistical problems at the border, critics point out. And President Trump’s rhetoric and other actions already have caused immigrant flows to ebb.
The proposal comes as the Trump administration has made securing the nation’s borders and ramping up enforcement of immigration laws top priorities. The president’s controversial travel ban, slated to go into effect March 16, has put a 120-day halt on the US Refugee Admissions Program as the administration reviews its vetting procedures. It has also cut the number of refugees admitted to the United States each year to 50,000, down from 110,000.
But Central American families seeking asylum at the border are not part of the refugee admissions program, scholars point out. According to US immigration law and international treaties, officials are obligated to give asylum-seekers due process and a hearing to consider their claims.
Separating mothers from their children at the border strikes many advocates as inhumane.
"Is that what the US wants to be identified with around the world?” asks Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “If we want to deter this kind of migration, we might want to focus on the conditions that produce it, and on policies that are transformative in terms of those conditions.... Punishing, in effect, the victims of those conditions because they’re seeking protection seems to be literally perverse.”
The Trump effect
The Trump administration has focused instead on security and enforcement. It is reportedly drafting plans to cut billions of dollars from agencies such as the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides relief after natural disasters, in order to fund its expanded crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, including hiring thousands of additional agents, building new border facilities and detention centers, and building the president’s promised massive border wall.
And Mr. Trump’s immigration orders already include new deterrents. Officials have now been instructed to prosecute parents of unaccompanied minors for the crime of human trafficking. Critics consider this deterrent effort, too, a severe blow to those attempting to unify their families, or even save their children’s lives.
The efforts appear to be having an effect.
From October through December last year – encompassing the period before Trump took power – border patrol agents apprehended nearly 45,000 families at the Mexican border, double the number from the same period a year ago, according to a report by the US Customs and Border Protection agency released on Thursday. Nearly 15,500 of these families were deemed inadmissible.
This year, however, the numbers have dropped dramatically. In January, only 9,300 families were apprehended; in February, the total plunged further to 3,100 – roughly one-fifth the monthly totals from late last year.
“The decrease is also encouraging news because it means many fewer people are putting themselves and their families at risk of exploitation, assault, and injury by human traffickers and the physical dangers of the treacherous journey north,” the report notes.
Supporters of the president’s immigration policies, too, note that the nation’s obligations to asylum-seekers are often easily abused.
“An important problem is, a lot of time there are adults bringing kids with them, but they are not their own kids, and they are sort of rent-a-child operations,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization in Washington that supports the administration’s more aggressive approach to enforcement. “Because under Obama, if you had a kid with you, it was almost an automatic ticket to being let go” under the previous catch-and-release policy for noncriminal unauthorized immigrants.
Reasons for the surge
He also notes how the Obama administration had run public service announcements during the surges of unaccompanied minors and families from Central American countries a few years ago. These TV and radio announcements warned people that they would be sent back if they tried to enter the country.
“Well, that wasn’t true,” Mr. Krikorian says. “So when people tried it anyway, and they were let go ... people just called back home and said, ‘Hey, those ads they’re running, guess what? The American government lies just like ours does, so come on up.’ ”
Part of the reason for this surge in immigrants, most of them from Central America, continues to be the ongoing gang violence in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which have some of the world’s highest murder rates for nations not at war.
“They have to do something to respond to this surge of Central Americans,” Krikorian adds. Still, he says there remain questions about a policy separating families, and whether this might lead to even more administrative problems as officials take custody of children separated from their mothers.
“We have tremendous experience in dealing with unaccompanied minors,” Kelly told CNN. “We turn them over to [Health and Human Services], and they do a very, very good job of either putting them in kind of foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.”
A logistical nightmare?
Yet critics say expanding both of these efforts will cause profound problems, making many of the current pressures on the workload of immigration agencies even worse.
“Even just as a logistical matter, if they separated the mothers from their children, the adults would be placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and presumably the children would go into custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is a part of Health and Human Services,” says Koop, who also teaches immigration law at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
“Then you’d have two deportation cases happening simultaneously, when you have the same facts, the same claims, but now they are potentially before different courts, before a different judge, requiring duplicate judicial resources, government resources, and attorney resources,” she continues. “So as a logistical matter, it’s a nightmare.”
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security outlined plans to expand the expedited removal process to address the nation’s immigration courts’ record number of more than 534,000 pending cases, which have “significantly strained” the system.
The effort to deter asylum-seekers by separating mothers from their children could also add significant burdens to the foster care system, as well as the health-care necessities these children would require, critics note.
“And you could also see a situation in which, yes, there are family members here, but they don’t want to step forward and take responsibility for their niece or nephew or their little brother or sister, because doing so would put them in jeopardy of removal,” says Christina Wilkes, an immigration attorney with Grossman Law in Washington, who specializes in representing unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally.
Ms. Wilkes notes, too, that in years past the surge of asylum seekers from Central America included a large number of unaccompanied teenagers. Now she mostly sees families with younger children. “So it’s also very difficult for family members already here, and already working long hours, to take on the responsibility for young children needing care all the time, from changing diapers to watching toddlers and preschool age kids.”
All of this is a reason that fewer asylum-seekers should even qualify to enter the process, says Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“You can’t have a first-cut process that approves everybody,” he says. “The ‘credible fear standard’ needs to be raised significantly so that you don’t even get fed into the pipeline for asylum unless you have a more-than-plausible story – and that is what they are already starting to do, as I understand.”
But few experts believe that in the end, the policy of separating mother from their children would deter families from trying to apply for refuge.
“If the choice is to stay in your country and die, or come to the United States and face whatever may come, it’s not really a choice,” says Wilkes. “As traumatizing as it would be to be separated from your children, if the alternative is to see them killed, it’s not really a choice and it won’t be a deterrent from coming.”