Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Helping without hurting

Compassion | Lawmakers struggled this year to find compassionate solutions to illegal immigration, opioid abuse, homelessness, and more
by Charissa Koh
Posted 12/26/18, 12:35 pm

This year the immigration debate took center stage in the United States. Stories flooded the news media all year describing scenes of children being separated from parents and migrants being taken to detention. President Donald Trump’s strong rhetoric inflamed the already emotional issue. The U.S. government enacted policies designed to show compassion to prisoners, opioid addicts, and sex trafficking victims. Several state governments changed their laws to try to help panhandlers and homeless people. But on the ground level, the difference the changes will make in the everyday lives of the vulnerable remains to be seen.

Migration mania

After reducing the number of refugees allowed in 2018, Trump capped next year’s number at an all-time low in September. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the government was trying to balance accepting refugees with dealing with the backlog of asylum-seekers already waiting.

The widely publicized groups of nearly 5,000 Central American caravan migrants wait in Tijuana, Mexico, to file their asylum claims and enter the United States. In November, U.S. Border Patrol briefly shut down the San Ysidro crossing in anticipation of a group of immigrants rushing the border. Another time, agents used tear gas to repel a crowd pressing forward to overwhelm the guards. Some migrants attempted to scale the border fences instead of waiting. The mayor of Tijuana requested help from the United Nations, declaring the drain on city resources a “humanitarian crisis.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration enacted policies to try to stem the flow of migrants only to have them blocked by federal courts. Procedures for detaining migrant parents and children separately, rejecting the asylum applications of illegal immigrants, and ending asylum for people fleeing gang and domestic violence were reversed by court orders. Trump and Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, ended the year with an agreement that Mexico would house asylum applicants from Central America during U.S. immigration processing in exchange for U.S. funds to help economic development in Central America and southern Mexico. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Robert F. Bukaty (file) Associated Press/Photo by Robert F. Bukaty (file) A homeless man panhandles in Portland, Maine.

Begging for change

In August, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty continued its mission to decriminalize panhandling across the country. The group, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others, sent letters to local and state governments asking them to repeal anti-panhandling laws, claiming the regulations violated the free speech of the homeless. Multiple states have laws against begging or panhandling, but since 2015, 25 lawsuits have successfully forced those laws to change. The lawsuits even target states such as Colorado and Iowa, where homelessness is not a comparatively big problem. Officials find themselves in the tough position of wanting to care for the homeless while maintaining order and safety in their communities. Supporters of the laws say they encourage people to find solutions to homelessness instead of prolonging their destitution. —C.C.

Prison Fellowship Prison Fellowship

Relief for prisoners

Late in May, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person (First Step) Act. The bill provides $50 million to reduce the recidivism of federal prisoners and give inmates individualized plans for reentering society, among other things. The goal of the act is to reduce mass incarceration and unjust sentencing. It also provides more opportunities for faith-based groups to help inmates prepare for life outside prison. Last week, the Senate passed the bill 87-12 with dozens of Republicans voting with the 49 Democrats in the chamber. President Donald Trump tweeted support for the bipartisan accomplishment minutes later, noting that the bill would give second chances to citizens who deserved them, as well as save the government billions of dollars. Trump signed the act into law Friday. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Selsky Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Selsky Debra Royal describes the overdose death of her nephew, Alex Eliot, at a Dec. 11 news conference in Salem, Ore.

A nation in pain

The opioid crisis continued to sweep across the United States, with opioid overdose deaths increasing by 45 percent across the country from 2016 to 2017. Early this year, the government cracked down on websites that sold illegal drugs, particularly opioids. Using encrypted sections of the internet (called the “darknet”), dealers sold to anonymous buyers and mailed them the drugs. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions doubled the number of agents assigned to pursue online dealers this year.

In October the Senate passed a bipartisan bill called the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act. The SUPPORT Act funds public health labs and provides more tools for states and communities to combat different aspects of the opioid epidemic. Trump signed it into law soon after. —C.C.

Traffic battle

In April, Trump signed a bill aimed at stopping online sex trafficking. The weeks immediately following saw a dramatic decrease in online ads for sex, due partly to the law and partly to the shutdown of, one of the worst offenders. Backpage was notorious for hosting ads for sex with minors, but its executives used legal loopholes to dodge consequences. In April, federal agents arrested the top executives of Backpage for money laundering and facilitating prostitution. When they shut down the site soon after, sex ads worldwide dropped. But several months later, the volume of these ads is back up almost to the same level it was before April, now on foreign sites the United States cannot regulate. The law was a good step, but much work still needs to be done. —C.C.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 12/27/2018 06:03 pm

    Good reporting, Charissa.  One suggestion to better contextualise the immigration news:  Refer to the debate about asylum seeker loopholes as well as the number and nature of successful v. unsuccessful asylum seeker applications.