by Tana Liu-Beers, Esq. -
With shocking images of children ripped away from their parents at the border pervading the news this month, Disciples have been asking what they can do to help. Let’s start by understanding what’s going on. While the policy of prosecuting all asylum seekers and separating children is new, the broader problems we’re seeing with the U.S. immigration system are anything but new.
Who are these families trying to come to the U.S.?
In recent years violence in certain Central American countries, particularly Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, has reached staggering levels. Criminal gangs recruit young people by force, threaten innocents, and kill with impunity. Families and even young children are fleeing for their lives.
Why don’t they “get in line” and come to the U.S. “the right way”?
For these families, no “right way” exists. U.S. immigration law allows only certain categories of people to come to the U.S. And even those narrow legal avenues are prohibitively slow. There are far more people trying to immigrate to the U.S. than the law allows, which creates severe backlogs. The wait for people trying to reunite with U.S. citizen family members is decades long in some cases. The wait for people with employment offers to immigrate is often years. If there were a viable legal way to come to the U.S., these families would gladly forego the dangerous journey through Mexico and across the desert.
Can they get asylum?
U.S. and international law prohibit sending people back to countries where they will be tortured or persecuted on account of their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. People are entitled to apply for asylum from within the U.S. and at the border. However, in practice, border agents have turned asylum-seekers away and prevented them from applying for asylum. Even those who are allowed to apply face steep barriers to proving their claims in immigration court. Asylum is a highly technical area of law, and asylum-seekers are not provided lawyers. Furthermore, this month Attorney General Jeff Sessions single-handedly overturned decades of asylum law, making it even more difficult for people fleeing gang violence and domestic abuse to gain asylum.
Are they breaking the law?
Particularly due to the above-mentioned difficulty of seeking asylum at designated ports of entry, asylum-seekers have increasingly crossed the border between entry points. Unlawful entry into the U.S. is a crime. In the past, however, many asylum-seekers were allowed to pursue their asylum claims in immigration court rather than being prosecuted in federal criminal court. That changed with the recent “zero tolerance” policy.
What can we do to help?
Even if children are no longer ripped from their parents’ arms at the border, they are still being held in family prison camps. The current administration continues to increase immigrant detention, which further harms people who already fled terror, including children. Across the U.S. parents are torn from their children by detention and deportation, separating these families and traumatizing these children. We have to speak out against these actions done in our name. It isn’t exciting, but we need to use our power as citizens and documented people to call our legislators. We can help fund immigrant rights organizations that have been on the front lines of the family detention crisis for years. We can join other Disciples who are organizing and advocating with our immigrant sisters and brothers.
The past month has shown that some things are so unacceptable that they cannot be justified by hypocritical appeals to the rule of law. Just as children being torn from their parents’ arms is unacceptable no matter what the parent’s immigration status, so family detention and family separation by deportation must be stopped regardless of whatever laws are used to justify them.
Tana Liu-Beers is Disciples Immigration Legal Counsel. Find more legal resources at disciplesimmigration.org or follow her on Facebookor Twitter @DOCImmigration.