Cruelty Is Still the Administration’s Response to Asylum Seekers

Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the Trump administration to reunite the migrant families that were separated as a result of their zero tolerance policy by July 26th. It’s now been 42 days since that deadline passed and here’s where things stand:

According to the most recent numbers, the Trump administration continues to have 497 children under U.S. custody, including 22 kids age 5 and under. The parents of 322 children have already been deported, including six kids age 5 and under.

Under the previous update, the Trump administration had 528 children under custody, including 23 kids age 5 and under. The numbers are barely moving, and when every day in custody is another day of trauma, this is unacceptable.

That represents a colossal and cruel failure on the part of this administration. But rather than focusing their energy on correcting that inhumane mistake, they are going to try another route to accomplish the same ends.

The Trump administration said Thursday it is preparing to circumvent limits on the government’s ability to hold minors in immigration jails by withdrawing from the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal consent decree that has shaped detention standards for underage migrants since 1997.

The maneuver is almost certain to land the administration back in court, where U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee, who oversees the agreement, has rejected attempts to extend the amount of time migrant children can be held with their parents beyond the current limit of 20 days.

But under changes proposed Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, the administration said it would issue new regulations that “satisfy the basic purpose” of the Flores settlement and ensure migrant children “are treated with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors.”

“Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department’s ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no legal basis to remain in the country,” said DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in a statement. “This rule addresses one of the primary pull factors for illegal immigration and allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress.”…

Homeland Security officials say that will ensure that those families, many of whom are Central Americans seeking asylum, appear in immigration court.

Allow me to translate what Sec. Nielsen is actually saying: According to this administration, the migrant families that are coming to this country to seek asylum from violence are such a threat to us that we need to be as cruel as possible to scare off future potential refugees. One of the ways we plan to do that is to toss out the standards for how we treat their children and detain them indefinitely because, otherwise, they won’t show up for court hearings that will order their deportation.

Getting rid of the Flores agreement, which they refer to as a “loophole” rather than guidelines that protect migrant children, has been a priority for this administration from the beginning. Having failed to get Congress to eliminate it during the debates about DACA, it looks like they are just going to toss it and challenge the courts to do something about it.

The result is that the administration plans to detain migrant families with children indefinitely, and we are supposed to believe that these folks will treat them with dignity and respect—even as they openly admit that this move is all about reducing the so-called “pull factor for illegal immigration.” In other words, it’s all about sending a message to potential refugees that they’re better off dealing with violence in their home country than coming here to seek asylum.

Beyond the cruelty involved in all of this, it is important to keep in mind that everything this administration is doing on this front is based on lies. Just yesterday we learned that they summarily rejected data suggesting that refugees don’t pose a threat to this country.

The Trump administration has consistently sought to exaggerate the potential security threat posed by refugees and dismissed an intelligence assessment last year that showed refugees did not present a significant threat to the U.S., three former senior officials told NBC News.

Hard-liners in the administration then issued their own report this year that several former officials and rights groups say misstates the evidence and inflates the threat posed by people born outside the U.S. …

A current DHS official defended the administration’s response to the intelligence assessment, saying immigration policy in the Trump administration does not rely solely on “historical data about terrorism trends,” but rather “is an all-of-the-above approach that looks at every single pathway that we think it is possible for a terrorist to come into the United States.”

There is also the lie about how asylum-seekers need to be detained in order to ensure that they appear in court.

Empirical research has found, however, that asylum seekers fleeing persecution arrive predisposed to comply with legal processes and trust the system to provide them a fair hearing, even if they might lose. If the U.S. government treats asylum seekers fairly and humanely—i.e., releases them following their apprehension and provides legal assistance before their hearing—evidence suggests that they will be likely to appear for proceedings. Put simply, a humane approach can work.

The message sent by this new initiative to abandon the Flores Agreement is that, even after the outcry over their family separation policy, the heart of this administration’s response to asylum-seekers along our southern border is to create an issue based on lies and then inflict cruelty as a deterrence.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.