President Trump’s executive order may offer a temporary solution to a vexing problem, but there’s another tipping point his administration and Congress still must face: What to do about immigration policy.
Indeed, many Americans agree that keeping families together is ideal when possible, but huge divides remain over what to do about the broader issue of illegal immigration.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., spoke about “the great dilemma” facing the nation during a Senate floor speech on Tuesday.
The current dilemma is not a recent problem but goes back more than 20 years to a 1997 consent decree called the Flores settlement. That agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of immigrant youth said U.S. authorities could hold unaccompanied children in immigration detention only for a short period of time.
Fast-forward 20 years.
Last month, the Trump administration reported that illegal border crossings had climbed 160 percent in May 2018, compared to May 2017. White House officials were already experiencing angst over reports that the Trump administration had freed 100,000 immigrants caught crossing the U.S. border in the 15 months since Trump took office. Those immigrants were mostly unaccompanied minors and families with children.
In past administrations, Sen. Lankford noted, officials often released immigrants crossing illegally into the United States, with a summons to appear at a later court date. Many didn’t show up.
The Trump administration wanted to enforce existing immigration laws, but the Flores agreement meant that if border officials charged and detained parents for the crime of crossing the border illegally, officials couldn’t keep their children in criminal custody as well. They’d have to separate them.
That’s what the administration decided to do in May, with a new zero tolerance policy for illegal crossings. (In 2005, the Bush administration also instituted a zero tolerance policy for a time but reportedly made exceptions for families traveling with children.)
Now, with parents in detention, children go into the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and then the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The goal: Find a family member or other sponsor here in the United States who can care for the child while the parents’ criminal proceedings continue. Finding that placement can take at least two months.
“That is a mess,” said Lankford.
“Now it’s something that has occurred based on the decision of the adult that brought the child, and the decision of the adult to illegally cross the border, but it’s still a mess,” he said. “Our default should be to keep families together unless there’s absolutely no other way to be able to do it.”
It’s a mess that might be helped by allowing families to remain in dedicated detention centers with their children while they await their court proceedings. With a massive backlog in immigration courts, it’s unclear how long those waits will last, particularly if immigrants decide to contest deportation or apply for asylum.
Lankford recommended a policy to allow families caught at the border the option to return home, instead of entering into legal proceedings in the United States. But he also urged Congress to do the longer-term work of making decisions on border security and legal status for young adults whose parents brought them to the United States as children.
That’s a massive job, and even as debates continue, many questions remain:
• Will family detentions work? The Obama administration tried a similar approach in 2014 after a surge in illegal immigration but faced backlash and court challenges that curbed some of those detentions.
• What about the minors who cross the border without adults? DHS says it has at least 11,000 unaccompanied minors in custody, who aren’t waiting to be reunited with parents.
• What about immigrants seeking asylum? It’s unclear how many recent immigrants are coming for economic reasons, and how many may be coming to apply for asylum, though about half of the recent influx reportedly comes from Central America. U.S. law sets parameters for claiming asylum, but it’s unclear how many seeking the status legally qualify, and whether they should remain in detention as they wait a court date, or be released on bond. (Some have suggested issuing ankle bracelets to any immigrant released from custody and awaiting a hearing.)
• What are residents in Central America hearing about conditions in the United States, and what led to the surge in illegal crossings this spring? While it may simply be a seasonal increase, others say rumors may be circulating that illegal entry into the United States is still a viable option. Some may be seeking a better life—some may be seeking to save their lives by fleeing dangerous lands.
Either way, Rodriguez says his group works with churches in Central America to urge families not to try to cross into the United States illegally.
He says he’s not insensitive to the excruciating conditions facing some citizens of dangerous Central American countries, but he also says bringing children on trek to the United States exposes them to the dangers of cartels, traffickers, and corrupt smugglers: “It’s too dangerous.”
Back in D.C., Lankford urged Congress to act in a way that would encourage the rule of law, including tighter border security but also to enforce the law humanely. “I know these issues are difficult and emotional, but there are real lives mixed into this,” he said. “Individuals created in the image of God that have value and worth.”