Facing heavy criticism for a new “zero-tolerance” policy that is separating migrant children from their parents on the southern US border, the Trump administration is asking Congress to undo protections for migrant children and allow for more families to be held in immigration jails — all while blaming Democrats for the migrant “crisis” ahead of the midterm elections.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, senior administration officials said Democrats’ refusal to close “loopholes” in immigration law and spend more money on border security and immigrant detention has created incentives for growing numbers of migrants fleeing Latin American countries to enter the United States illegally.
“Senate Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail against every solitary effort to close these loopholes and get adequate detention space, ICE officers, you name it,” said Stephen Miller, a far-right activist who now serves as a senior policy adviser to President Trump.
Miller’s comments come as controversy swirls around the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy for prosecuting undocumented immigrants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that all adults attempting to enter the country illegally would be arrested and prosecuted, even as human rights groups argue that many migrants caught in the criminal dragnet are fleeing violence and repression and should be considered asylum seekers.
Currently, children are not allowed to be held in adult immigration jails as their parents wait for a judge to rule on their case, so hundreds of children have been forcibly separated from their parents by federal officers in recent months, according to reports.
Last week, the United Nations’ refugee agency reported a “significant” increase in the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and seeking refuge in other countries, including the United States. The UN says many migrants are vulnerable women and children, but the White House says migrants and smugglers use children to exploit protections in immigration law and gain access to the country.
The Trump administration has responded by ramping up arrests and deportations at the border as the Republican Party prepares to rally hardline anti-immigration voters to the midterm polls. Administration officials are now calling on Congress to undo protections for migrant children and expand the government’s ability to hold families in immigration detention centers that advocates say are no different from jails.
The debate over Trump’s immigration crackdown flared up over the past week after reports suggested that federal authorities “lost track” of nearly 1,500 children who arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult and were left with relatives or other sponsors. As officials explained to reporters, those children did not disappear. Instead, their sponsors did not respond to follow-up phone calls from Health and Human Services representatives — a sign that Trump’s crackdown is driving a wedge between immigrant families and the government.
“While children are being dragged from the arms of their parents and held in detention camps under inhumane conditions, deportation agents are hunting down the rest of our immigrant community to drag even more people to the same camps,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of the immigrant rights group United We Dream, in a statement.
Amid the media backlash, Trump fired off an inaccurate tweet blaming Democrats for “bad laws” that have led immigration authorities to break up families at the border. (No such law exists; Trump’s own policies are causing families to be separated, according to fact checkers at The Associated Press.)
“The Trump Administration stated that family separation is required by law which is blatantly false,” said Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, in a statement. “Moreover, separating families is both inhumane and bad public policy. Not only does it exacerbate a mounting human rights crisis, it also puts an enormous strain on our already overburdened system.”
Miller clarified the White House’s position on Tuesday, claiming that the migrant “crisis” on the southern US border should be blamed on so-called “catch-and-release” loopholes in immigration law created by protections for migrants and their children, along with Democratic lawmakers who refuse to support the president’s agenda.
The White House is particularly concerned with a 1997 consent decree that prevents law enforcement from detaining migrant children arriving with family members for longer than 20 days before handing them over to the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. In the past, authorities would sometimes choose not to detain undocumented immigrants arriving with children in order to keep families together.
Now that every adult accused of crossing the border illegally is being detained and prosecuted, all such families are being separated. Miller said Congress should solve this problem by terminating the agreement preventing children from being detained for longer than 20 days so families can be held in immigration jails together. He also asked lawmakers to allocate funding to expand detention facilities because many are already full of immigrants.
Family detention facilities — particularly those run by private prison companies — came under fire during the Obama administration for poor conditions and neglect. If the Trump administration has its way, more families would be held in such facilities as their cases wind through a system already experiencing serious backlogs, before eventually being sent back to countries ravaged by violence.
“Let’s be clear, we are talking about parents doing what any parent would do and that’s protecting their children,” Brané said.