The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on Republican-crafted immigration bills as national attention stays laser-focused on the plight of families trying to enter the United States at its southern border. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced the Securing America’s Future Act, a legislative fix to law enforcement, border security, chain migration, and policies affecting “Dreamers,” or children who were brought to the country illegally. The bill would also address concerns over illegal immigrant families being separated at the border by allowing the government to detain children and parents together indefinitely, a policy President Donald Trump was expected to introduce by executive order Wednesday. (Editor’s note: The president signed the order later Wednesday afternoon.)
From April 19 to May 31, about 1,995 children entered detention separate from their parents, who were being prosecuted for illegal entry. The “zero tolerance” policy built upon Operation Streamline, initiated by President George W. Bush, which set a goal of criminally prosecuting everyone who entered the U.S. illegally.
“The Obama administration also separated [illegal] immigrant families. … We’re increasing the rate of what we were already doing,” said Katie Waldman, spokeswoman for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “Instead of letting some slip through, we’re saying we’re doing it for all.”
A bipartisan coalition of more than 75 former U.S. attorneys wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, saying the policy traumatized children and was not required by law. (Title 8 of U.S. Code 1325 and 1326 govern illegal entry, a misdemeanor that carries a six-month sentence, and illegal reentry, a felony with a sentence of up to two years.)
Sessions sparked public outrage last week for citing a Bible passage about submission to government authority to defend the policy. He cited Romans 13, which was also quoted by 19th century slave owners to uphold slavery laws. In a Fort Wayne, Ind., speech responding to the backlash from religious leaders, Sessions added, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. It protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”
Many politicians and clergy said a zero tolerance policy harms the weak, who may already have been crime victims themselves. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, said the practice of separating families was “morally unacceptable,” The Boston Globe reported.
A wide swath of religious leaders banded together in a statement against the policy, and more than 600 clergy and laity from the United Methodist Church, to which Sessions belongs, said they planned to bring charges in church courts related to the attorney general’s actions.
Meanwhile, 55 percent of Republican voters said they supported the zero tolerance policy, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.
Customs and Border Protection reported it apprehended nearly double the number of family units in fiscal year 2016 as the previous year. And 2017 figures stayed nearly the same level: 75,802 individuals entered with a family member—an average of more than 6,300 per month.
The Department of Homeland Security said many migrants pose as parents or enter the country with a child so as to avoid prosecution, stemming from previous lax handling of families. “From October 2017 to February 2018, there was a 315 percent increase in the number of cases of adults with minors fraudulently posing as ‘family units’ to gain entry,” according to DHS.
“American citizens that are jailed do not take their children to jail with them,” Sessions said. “And noncitizens who cross our borders unlawfully—between our ports of entry—with children are not an exception.”
The attorney general sees the law as the solution.
“If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices,” he said.