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How to Stop Child Separation? Stop Sending Their Parents to Prison.

Immigrant parents are facing decades in prison for simply migrating.

A US Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the US-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were detained by Border Patrol agents and sent to a processing center for possible separation.

Part of the Series

The best way to stop the horrific separation of children from their families at the border is to pay attention to what is happening to their parents.

Around the country, people have reacted to the images of children in cages and stories of infants being pulled from their mothers by ICE and Border Patrol agents with appropriate anger and disgust. Communities are organizing to push back on these attacks as best as they can. It is right that we want to remedy the immediate crisis, but we must go beyond that to truly end it.

What has been less paid attention to is that the parents are being criminally prosecuted, facing up to 20 years in prison for simply migrating. It is this criminal prosecution for “illegal entry” and “re-entry” by the Department of Justice that allows for the government to take children away, put them in cages, or send them to live with complete strangers, while their parents sit in private prisons.

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions has a clear agenda for the Justice Department. It includes ramping up new ways of criminalizing and incarcerating people while rolling back criminal justice and policing reforms. Criminally prosecuting migrants is a major piece of his plan. Sessions and his staff are re-imagining the structure of immigration enforcement and criminalization in this country, so that most migrants will spend up to 20 years in private prisons before being transferred to immigration enforcement and eventually deported as felons. Sessions has given clear indications of this plan, and its implementation is now accelerating.

As is often the case with immigration enforcement policy, the US/Mexico borderlands are the laboratory for crackdown. It is critical to understand that as part of this agenda, immigrants are not only being prosecuted at the border. Migrants who were recently detained during immigration raids in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Austin, Chicago, New York City and Morristown, Tennessee, have been prosecuted and criminally charged by the Department of Justice. These are immigration raids that indiscriminately target immigrants in their homes, at work, or in their communities and are conducted without respect for civil and constitutional rights. If left unchallenged, these prosecutions and resulting incarceration of migrants and separation of families will spread throughout every corner of this country. It is imperative to mount a vigorous fight to prevent the proliferation of migrant prosecutions. Here are a few key proposed remedies:

Shut. Down. Sessions.

He may be chastised by President Trump every so often for his inconvenient recusal in the Russia/Mueller investigations, but Jeff Sessions has never shown any indication of stepping down. He’s acting like he is in the Super Bowl, has the football and sees a clear path to his end goal: full-scale retrenchment of white supremacy shrouded in the law. Sessions and his crew seek to turn back the bourgeoning demographic, social and cultural transformation happening in the US, by any means necessary. As long as we continue to allow Jeff Sessions to carry out his vision of the Department of Justice as an instrument to lock up Black and Latinx people, our families will continue to be separated, migrants will spend their lives in private prisons, and children will continue to be jailed and lost. The Department of Justice should be investigating corrupt politicians, holding local police accountable for violations of constitutional rights and ensuring justice is present in our courtrooms. It should not be throwing the book at people for immigration and drug-related offenses, or causing the separation of children from their parents. In other words, the criminal department at the Department of Justice should cease to exist.

Follow the Money

As we see schools closed and budgets cut, business is booming for private prisons and the industry that profits from the caging of people and increasingly children. These are not faceless, nameless entities. Just as there are human beings in those cages, there are human being cashing those checks. This should be exposed and the people profiting from this despicable practice should be a point of advocacy and pressure. As long as there is a profit motive, it will prove to be even more difficult to stem or end this practice.

Elected Officials Get in the Game

Passing legislation that is a benefit to the immigrant community is not possible given the current balance of forces in the federal government. It’s likely not possible to pass legislation that is a compromise of sorts. This doesn’t mean that elected officials have their hands tied. In fact, it’s time to lean into the fact that legislative solutions are not happening soon and find new ways to intervene. Specifically members of Congress should be using the muscle of their offices to support cases of people who are facing federal prosecution.

Retire Failed Messages

Elected officials must be influenced to carry the demands and messaging of social movements, rather than the other way around. The immigrant rights movement has often prioritized the adage “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Unfortunately, this has not done us much good. We are up against xenophobes and white supremacists, if it isn’t clear yet. One example is the old argument in favor of legislation to protect undocumented youth, or “Dreamers.” The message that these young people should be protected because they came by no fault of their own is coming back to haunt us, because these policies explicitly target parents and cause irreparable harm to children. In addition, we should be mindful of the fact that every day families are separated because of incarceration, deportation or child protective services. Rather than alienating families who have suffered in silence, our messages in this time should directly speak to and ally with these families who are our most natural allies.

Abolish ICE

Jeff Sessions is not our only problem. The Trump Administration isn’t either. ICE is the largest police force and it operates with a blank check and no accountability. The Department of Homeland Security and its many appendages have ballooned under the guise of security; however, the countless stories of abuse of its agents should give us pause. This agency needs to be held to account, because it will remain no matter who wins the White House in 2020.

We must match the vision of this collection of xenophobes and white supremacists with our own strong vision and conviction. Their unchecked power must be challenged now, and a long-term vision is needed for what happens with these agencies, officials and agents in a post-Trump moment. If we continue to simply demand that families belong together, we risk only winning family detention and faux prisons. If we understand this is an escalation of previous immigration policies, we have to recognize the undeniable connection of Trump’s policies to the policies of past administrations, including those of President Obama. We can’t simply fight to be where we were. We have to reach past the status quo if we truly want to do right by the children being held at the border.

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