written by James Rodriguez Daza, June 30, 2018
Pasadena—During the early part of the 20th century, the United States received millions of immigrants from all over Europe, Canada, Latin America, as well as the Far East. According to Kraut (1982)*, an estimated 9 million immigrants had arrived during the early decades mostly from Northern and Western Europe having dropped a bit during the 1920s due to conditions left after WWI. Many who did arrive at Ellis Island, NY at the time were escaping persecution, severe impoverishment, political violence, natural disasters, or severe state health and safety conditions beyond their control. The Statue of Liberty soon became a symbol of refuge from such conditions for many immigrants arriving to the US for years that followed….until recently.
As far back as the early 1990s, immigration policy has been a hotly-contested, persistent political minefield for congressional players that culminated in the creation of several laws addressing it that eventually led to the denigration of immigrants among US society today.
“…we [the US] started to understand that immigration into this country was a problem. It was a problem that we needed to take to respond to in a militarized fashion. That’s the reason why President Bill Clinton had signed a number of laws in 1996 that made it harder for immigrants to seek asylum. It ramped up the militarization of our borders. I say that to suggest that what we are facing today is the imminently crueler, harsher version of what’s been really a consensus of a bipartisan problem we’ve had in this country. I’m heartened by folks [recently] on the left and by Democrats now who are starting to understand that particular problem and starting to say that, ‘Maybe voting for tons and tons of money to police our border today is not something that’s tenable any longer. And that maybe when we did that in 1996 was a mistake.’”—Mohammad Tajsar, ACLU Immigration Attorney, 2018.
After three presidential administrations and increased border enforcement, the debate continues with increasing fervor as the Trump administration took the debate into a much harsher place with the implementation of a zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy that separated families and galvanized both the nation and the world to decry against it. An estimated 600 grass roots assemblage of concerned communities and professionals had gathered in less than a month throughout the country to discuss ways to address the current immigration policy and work toward ending it. One such effort took place over the weekend at the Flintridge Retreat Center in Pasadena, CA. aptly named “Rise to Reunite: Panel and Action Workshops”.
The event offered an approximately 150 attendants a full afternoon of workshops intended on setting up actionable campaigns to lend a voice to both the affected undocumented migrant families and the numerous concerned citizens, professionals, and advocates who were outraged by the current US government actions that led to the current immigration dilemma. Several organizations were represented. They included the ACLU of Southern California Pasadena Foothills Chapter, YWCA Pasadena – Foothill Valley Chapter, the Pasadena/Altadena Coalition of Transformative Leaders (PACTL), the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), the Law Office of Carl Shusterman, Day One, and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). In fact, Congresswoman Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) of the 27th District of California was present to speak to attendants recanting her experience visiting the detention facilities at the border emphasizing the importance of such grass roots efforts like that displayed on the streets in DTLA and in workgroups like Rise to Reunite.
The event started with a panel discussion (overseen by senior counsel for the Law Offices of Carl Shusterman, Angeline Chen, and moderated by public speaker, Ernest Fenelon, Jr.) had key experts in the field who addressed numerous issues related to the current debate on immigration policy, the effects of the separation of undocumented migrant families, and first-hand accounts of site visits of some of the detention facilities where the children were held waiting to appear in immigration court. PACTL executive director, Yoland Trevino briefly gave a history of how US-CIA intervention in Guatemala during the Cold War helped sow the seeds to the political upheaval that eventually engulfed the country in acute cases of violence and poverty prompting an exodus of migrants to the US where they endured substandard living conditions and living in a constant state of fear and uncertainty. ACLU attorney Mohammad Tajsar gave a general description of the current immigration policy and explained the historical events that led up to it stressing that the problem had continued under both Democratic and Republican administrations. NILC communications director, Adela de la Torre provided a heart-wrenching, first-hand account of her organization’s visit to the Artiga detention facility in New Mexico where they inspected the facility and interviewed both staff and migrants in order to confirm that all immigration legal detention requirements concerning the care and treatment of the detainees including the children were being adhered satisfactorily. A video of the panel discussion is provided below.
Interestingly, the most important take-away from the panel discussion was the importance of helping attendants understand the current problems facing undocumented migrant families under the zero-tolerance policy and identify areas of focus to direct their efforts at establishing a coherent and actionable campaign to end it. So, participants were separated into four discussion workgroups after the conclusion of the panel discussion. The groups included advocacy, fundraising, community organizing, and general volunteering coordination. Each were headed by group leaders to brainstorm ideas, identify target audiences, identify actionable steps for goal execution, and more importantly group direction which would maintain the overall sustainability of group actions. Attendants actively engaged in their corresponding groups discussing possible solutions and voicing their personal feelings on how friends and families were directly affected during the enforcement of the contentious immigration policy. Many feared the repercussions and direction toward which the country was heading and understandably expressed their frustrations. The general consensus from the community organizing group (at least) was the importance of providing a face and/or voice to the undocumented migrants in order to humanize them and educate both advocates and naysayers alike of the real immigrant experience that follow them as they pass through an immigration system that Adela de la Torre had described as a “labyrinth that is difficult to navigate” for anyone caught in the process without adequate legal counsel, counsel which is generally not provided to immigrants who seemingly do not have the rights to it. Moreover, the direction that the workgroups emphasized was collective inclusion and fact-based campaigns to help persuade a larger consensus to support undocumented migrants and keep their families together. As one attendant noted, it doesn’t matter how much planning and coordination is done, if the other side of the immigration debate cannot be swayed to veer the pendulum toward a more moderate, coherent, and humane immigration policy, all their efforts would be in vain.
What are the current problems presented by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration prosecution policy onto undocumented immigrants?
According to the policy that was announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on April 11, 2018, any undocumented person that has been caught crossing the US Border will be detained and criminally prosecuted for illegal entry into the United States. If they were requesting asylum at any recognized port of entry, they would not be arrested and prosecuted; instead, they would start application proceedings for asylum. However, if undocumented families were caught crossing the US Border other than a recognized port of entry, the families would be detained. Since only the adults can be prosecuted, the children as young as infant-aged would be removed and held separately. In the meantime, the adults await adjudication–most often than not–without the benefit of legal representation. To complicate matters further, a 1997 Supreme Court ruling called the Flores Consent Decree stated that the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Customs and Border Protection) cannot detain undocumented, unaccompanied minors for more than 20 days at which point they must be released from their custody. With respect to the zero-tolerance immigration policy, children who were separated from their families are then reclassified as “unaccompanied minors” and subject to the Flores Consent Decree. Once the 20 day limit is reached and they have not been reunited with any member of their families, they are released from US Customs custody. Since the US cannot simply release unaccompanied minors without being placed under the care of a designated adult custodian other than a relative, these children are subsequently remanded to the custody of the US Health and Human Services where they would be assigned to foster care anywhere in the country while they wait to appear at a court hearing to decide their fate (i.e. deportation, asylum, etc.) Again, legal representation is less likely to be provided and the probability that they speak or understand English sufficiently to compose an adequate defense is very low. Considering that children younger than 3 years old are also separated from their families at the border, they too would be required to present their case in court.
Considering the varying bureaucracies at each stage of the immigration process, the policy implications present several areas of concern. Immigration experts point out that these children and their parents may wait several months before seeing a judge to decide on each case leaving affected families separated for extended periods of time potentially permanently keeping them apart especially if the parents are deported before the children are located and reunited with them. Another point of contention includes the fact that an overwhelming number of families arrive at the border seeking asylum from the extreme violence and poverty in many of their home countries that the designated points of entries at the Southern US Border are backlogged leaving asylum seekers to wait weeks to be seen. Frustrated, desperate, and often requiring medical attention due to the perilous journey to the border, they look to claim asylum at other points on entry not recognized by US officials resulting in their criminal arrest. In addition, US staff is severely undermanned to attend to the number of children housed in the facilities that have resulted in a decrease in the quality of care and trained personnel. Due to US child protection laws, detention facility staff and visitors are prohibited from touching, holding, or hugging children crying for their families in order to provide needed comfort from the trauma of family separation. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,
“Studies of detained immigrants have shown that children and parents may suffer negative physical and emotional symptoms from detention, including anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Conditions in U.S. detention facilities, which include forcing children to sleep on cement floors, open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities, and extremely cold temperatures, are traumatizing for children. No child should ever have to endure these conditions.” (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Statement-on-Executive-Order-on-Family-Separation.aspx).
Such areas of concern only briefly describe the Rubicon that the current policy presents. The initial effect was both national and international outrage. In the 2 months that followed the implementation of the zero-tolerance immigration policy, reports of the separation of thousands of families had displaced well over 2,370 children in holding facilities, tent camps and shelters. As stories of babies being torn away from nursing mothers, a father committing suicide after losing his children, and pictures, videos, and audio recordings of children being held behind cages and crying for their parents began surfacing, a world-wide rebuke of the controversial policy rang through every form of media. The United Nations Human Rights Office in fact had declared that the United States had violated the human rights of these families and in turn had violated international law stressing that the practice of criminalizing what for all-intensive purposes was considered an “administrative offense” is detrimental to the general welfare of the children and constituted a flagrant violation of the their human rights. The Organization of American States (OAS), which is an international, continental body of 35 independent states (including the US) that promotes regional solidarity and cooperation throughout the Americas, had approved a resolution at the end of June 2018 that called for the US, its headquartered base, to abandon its migrant child separation policy at the border and increase family reunification efforts immediately or risk possible injunctions from its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, had also gone before Parliament herself and denounced the policy. “This is wrong. This is not something that we agree with. This is not the United Kingdom’s approach”. Even a French government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, chimed in questioning the moral direction the US policy has taken.
The pressure was much more tumultuous nationally spurring outcries from different fronts. A majority from both Democrat and Republican camps publically repudiated the Trump policy on the floor of the House and Senate while former First Ladies Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, Roslyn Carter, and the president’s own Melania Trump publically spoke out against it on Father’s Day.
“…Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history…Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation…We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.…[C]an we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can.” –Former First Lady Laura Bush (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/laura-bush-separating-children-from-their-parents-at-the-border-breaks-my-heart/2018/06/17/f2df517a-7287-11e8-9780-b1dd6a09b549_story.html?utm_term=.3b8c7fa3e315)
Numerous non-profit, advocacy groups, national, professional organizations, like the American Medical Association, and faith-based organizations such as the Evangelical Immigration Table, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the US Attorney General’s own Methodist Church denounced the zero tolerance policy. As more stories, pictures, and videos like those taken from the former Walmart warehouse in Brownsville, TX or the detention facilities in San Diego, CA, came to light, US public opinion toward the separation of migrant families had begun to gather the attention of many more government officials (for some) whose seats were up for grabs this year. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in mid-June, for example, 66% of respondents opposed the policy while only 27% supported it. Government officials who were moved morally to respond demanded an end to the infamous immigration policy and called for an expedited reunification process for the families that have already been affected. 17 State Attorneys General led by New Mexico AG (Hector H. Balderas) wrote a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions vehemently opposing the order while 3 state governors, Govs. John Hickenlooper (D-Col.), Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from participating in the policy’s enforcement.
The political backlash that resulted backed US President Trump and his administration against a wall forcing him to reluctantly postpone separation efforts and demand that the US Congress pass an immigration bill that he could sign (which would have to include increased funding for his proposed border wall) in order to put the immigration debate to bed highlighting Trump’s efforts on using immigrant children as a political bargaining chip to fulfill his hard-lined immigration campaign promises. Predictably, after a week of political wrangling, no bill could pass through the House of Representatives that had a realistic chance of being signed into law by the President. Frustration, demoralization, and national polarization continued to increase. So much so, that national protests were organized and took place over the weekend demanding a complete end to the zero-tolerance policy. Since AG Sessions’ announcement of the strict enforcement on April 11 and Trump’s announced postponement of its family separation enforcement on June 21 due to political and international pressure, approximately 500 children had been reunited with their families while thousands more await their turn to see their families; however, the complexities related to family reunification due to the lack of proper comprehensive planning and protocols may potentially slow the process or potentially leave many children permanently separated prompting grass roots efforts like Rise to Reunite to overturn the immigration enforcement policy completely.
Tajsar summarizes this grass roots push best when referring to the immigration enforcement that had affected many Central American immigrants during the past decade as an example:
“They have been met with a series of brutal responses from the US that date back to Bill Clinton but also through the Bush administration and unfortunately into the Obama administration. And chief among them is the idea, the principle of the jailing of families is the right approach to this problem. So, we start from the baseline of heightened amounts of detention and jailing of families of migrants that are coming into this country. That was a problem that predated Trump. But what Trump has since done is announce this policy, a policy of zero tolerance. This was a policy that was announced in [April] but it was a policy that they were already starting to consider as early as March 2017. …There have been approximately 66 children separated from their families every day since April. What we have to do now is figure out a plan, a response to that problem.”
Ultimately, the purpose of immigration advocates and these community events is to remind the country of the basic principles on which the United States was founded: It is a nation of immigrants that represents the best of each culture while serving as a beacon of hope to the disenfranchised and offer a chance at a new life where persecution and intolerance has been abandoned. Instead, justice, tolerance, and hope ring louder in the US than any other nation on the planet. When immigrants traveled to this country so many years ago, the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of those hopes and dreams. The efforts currently being laid out by such grass roots efforts are an attempt to remind this country of that very ideal and take action to preserve it. For that reason alone, the fight to help these families continues with such urgency and passion. President Trump and his base of supporters may argue that America has fallen into disarray due to poor policy and leadership promising instead that their own policies and vision for the country will help make America great again. On the contrary, it is important to let them know that America HAS ALWAYS BEEN great. Some were just too blind by ignorance, bigotry, and their own short-comings to see that. Now, it’s this country’s moral imperative to help others see it too.
*Kraut, Alan, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921 (1982); Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted (1951)