By Chris Spencer
Everyone is asking the same questions:
“What is happening to separate children at the border? What does President Trump’s new Executive Order mean? And what can I do to help?”
These thoughts were sent to me this Thursday morning, June 21, from Graham Bateman, Director/Attorney from Dallas/Fort Worth Justice For Our Neighbors. The second half of this article is the actions and thoughts of our attorney Ella Rawls.
What is happening to separate children at the border?
The children separated at the border are in a different situation than the unaccompanied children who arrived in such numbers the past few years. Those children traveled alone, without their parents. They were placed into deportation proceedings (in immigration court) and housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) while the ORR looked for a family member in the United States to take care of them while their immigration court proceedings were pending. That crisis was caused by so many unaccompanied children fleeing the violence in their home countries.
During these past two months, the children making the headlines are arriving at the border with their parents. Some families cross illegally and some present themselves to officials at the border and ask for asylum.
Crossing the border illegally is a federal misdemeanor, subject to a fine and/or up to six months in jail. It is a felony if the person has crossed illegally more than once (8 US Code §1325). Few people had been prosecuted under this law. Instead, they went straight into deportation proceedings, held with their children in detention centers to await immigration court proceedings.
That changed when Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, recently announced a zero-tolerance policy, calling for 100% prosecution under the existing federal law. Now the parents are being charged with a misdemeanor and put in federal jail to wait for their criminal trials. Under this new policy separation of families is inevitable because the children cannot go to the federal jails with their parents.
While the parents are waiting for their trials and then serving their sentences their children go to an Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the United States Department of Health and Human Services. They are kept in government facilities, like the former Wal-Mart or the tent cities near El Paso, while the office of the ORR tries to find a family member in the United States who can take care of the children until the parents’ immigration case is finished.
A key point to understand in this crisis is that the ORR was already overwhelmed from the earlier cases of unaccompanied children. Their facilities were 95% full in early June of this year. We have been expecting to see more tent cities being created on military bases, including near Fort Worth.
What does President Trump’s new Executive Order mean?
The Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation Executive Order was signed on June 20.
Under it, immigrant parents who try to enter the US at or between ports of entry will continue to be prosecuted. But now families will be detained together, by the Department of Homeland Security.
I expect to see families housed on military bases, including in tent cities, because of the new EO orders the Secretary of Defense to provide the Department of Homeland Security any facilities available and construct facilities if necessary to house immigrant families. These new family detention facilities will have to meet certain standards under the Flores settlement.
I expect to see immigration advocates fighting to ensure that the family detention facilities continue to meet minimum standards. Under the Flores settlement, immigrant children who are kept in custody must be held in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs,” not housed with unrelated adults, and provided with basic necessities such as food and drinking water. When a family is being held together all the family members must be kept in these conditions. But the Executive Order directs Attorney General Sessions to file a request to modify the Flores settlement to allow families to be detained together “under present resource constraints.”
I expect to see stories of children being detained with their families for years. Under the Flores settlement children cannot be held in detention for more than 20 days. Children must be released as soon as possible to a parent, family member, or legal guardian. But the Executive Order orders the Attorney General to have the Flores Settlement modified so that the families can be detained together while their legal and immigration cases are pending. The federal criminal charges should be processed quickly, but asylum cases currently take years to make their way through the courts. A Methodist minister in Dallas who has had an asylum case pending for years has had his first hearing on the merits put off until 2020.
What can we do to help?
The headlines everywhere have been about the children being separated from their families at the border. This is inhumane, and the June 20 Executive Order is not a quick fix. Instead of families separated we will see children detained with their parents while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. The United Methodist Social Principles affirm that “we oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children ...” (Social Principles 162.H)
People of faith still have work to do.
Here is what Ella Rawls is doing and recommending:
She is going to Nogales to donate to the shelters in Nogales, Sonora, and then she will be back to continue giving legal orientations in collaboration with The Florence Project. Kino Border Initiative/The Florence Project have a collaboration going on in Ambos Nogales.
Ella reminds us about The Inn Project, which houses asylum seekers who have already passed the credible fear interview, and people who have been paroled into the U.S. with deferred enforcement. They can use supplies, as they also have been assisting with the large numbers at the Nogales POE.
If there are experienced immigration attorneys, paralegals or legal assistants that are willing to come and help at the Nogales POE, they can fill out a survey, and The Florence Project will contact them. Ella is happy to help with transportation if needed from Tucson.
All non-attorneys and people interested in helping, such as Social Workers, Psychologists and counselors can donate their services to organizations that are working on asylum cases, as these services are especially important right now. Those who cannot volunteer, but care about keeping families together can speak loudly on social media, protest, and contact their representatives about the family detention system.
During this difficult time, it is very heartening to hear and see how many people are finally paying attention. We are all in this together.
And we can all continue to donate to AZJFON and invite our friends and acquaintances to donate.