Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Policies Target Children, Cancer Patients, Servicemembers

On Tuesday, the Trump administration reportedly ended its “medical deferred action” program, which allows immigrants with serious health problems to stay in the U.S. for up to two years beyond the terms of their visas to receive critical treatment. Just one day later, it announced that some children born to U.S. servicemembers and government employees stationed overseas will no longer automatically receive citizenship. The policy changes come days after the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to allow the Trump administration to implement its rule banning almost all migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. Amid these crackdowns, border wall construction began this week on federally protected lands in the remote Arizona desert, and many immigrant families remain separated due to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which was supposed to have ended more than a year ago. We speak with Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on immigrant rights. On Tuesday, the government reportedly ended its “medical deferred action” program, which allows immigrants with serious health problems to stay in the U.S. for up to two years beyond the terms of their visas to receive critical treatment. Just one day later, it announced some children born to U.S. servicemembers and government employees stationed overseas will no longer automatically receive citizenship.

This all came just days after the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to allow the Trump administration to implement its rule banning almost all migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. A federal judge in San Francisco had temporarily blocked the rule in July, halting plans to stop anyone who passes through a third country before arriving in the U.S. from applying for asylum. But Monday, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco asked the Supreme Court to issue a stay on the ruling, allowing the rule to go into effect. The rule would stop virtually all people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala from seeking refuge in the United States and apply for asylum in Mexico instead.

Amid these crackdowns, border wall construction began this week on federally protected lands in the remote Arizona desert. Construction crews are in the first phase of erecting two miles of border wall in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, endangering the fragile Sonoran Desert ecosystem and destroying Native Tohono O’odham and Hia C-ed O’odham land. The Washington Post is reporting President Trump has ordered his staff to speed up the construction of his border wall before the 2020 election, even if it means breaking the law.

All the while, many immigrant families remain separated due to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which was supposed to have ended more than a year ago.

Well, for more, we’re go to Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now!

LEE GELERNT: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. I want to start with the Trump administration’s decision to end its medical deferred action program. Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Sanchez has cystic fibrosis and now fears his pending request with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be denied. He was born in Honduras. This is Jonathan in an audio clip from NPR.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ: If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I’ll probably die, because in my country there is no treatment for CF. Doctors don’t even know what’s the disease. The only ones who can help me are here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Sanchez has cystic fibrosis. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said the administration is now “literally deporting kids with cancer” and that the change would “terrorize sick kids who are literally fighting for their lives,” he said. Massachusetts Congressmember Ayanna Pressley said she is considering calling for a congressional oversight hearing on the matter, saying, quote, “What’s so troubling about this, beyond the cruelty of it, is the lack of transparency around the process. There was no public comment period, not even a public announcement of this,” she said. The ACLU of Massachusetts has vowed to fight the policy change in court.

Lee, let’s begin there. You help to head up the immigration program of the ACLU.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: What is involved here? We’re talking about children and adults who are receiving —

LEE GELERNT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — critical care in hospitals around the U.S.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, I mean, I think this is par for the course: the administration going after the most vulnerable. For the last year and a half, we’ve been fighting their policy of separating little children, babies even, from families. Last week, they went after military families. Now they’re going after sick kids. You know, so it’s devastating, but not surprising. Why the need to deport children who are sick? I mean, is that really in our country’s interest?

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the issue of military families.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what they’re talking about here. I mean, this all comes down one day after the next.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Servicemembers overseas, their children, born where they are, might not get U.S. citizenship.

LEE GELERNT: Right. So, the administration is saying they still can get citizenship, but they have to take multiple steps now to do it. Why the change? What possible national interest could be involved to make military families go through additional steps to do this? And you mentioned at the outset, there’s no transparency, there’s no public comment. Everything is done immediately without letting the public comment. Can you imagine if they said, “We want public comment on whether we should make it harder for military families”? I mean, the public would have been outraged. If the public knew that they were considering not having — not allowing families with children with sick kids to stay, people would have been outraged. And I think that’s part of why they don’t ever have public comment. They’re virtually banning asylum now. No public comment again.

AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s talk about that.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Banning asylum, what exactly are they proposing?

LEE GELERNT: Right. So, they now have two asylum bans. We got the first one enjoined. They took it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow them to put it into effect. We’re going forward in that case on the merits.

They come back now with a second asylum ban, which is on the table right now. That would ban anybody who’s transited through a third country. The administration is saying, “Well, just apply in one of those other countries.” Well, the administration knows full well that it’s too dangerous to apply for asylum in the Northern Triangle and that those asylum systems are not functioning. So, effectively, what they’re trying to do is ban asylum. That’s a very dangerous path for the United States to go on.

We’ve gotten it blocked. They’ve now asked the U.S. Supreme Court, as you mentioned, to let it go into effect immediately. As soon as I leave here, we’ll be finishing our opposition papers. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will not let it go into effect. If it goes into effect, we’re essentially ending asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration issued a new rule earlier this month to withdraw from a 1997 federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, which put a 20-day limit on migrant family detentions. The rule would allow immigration authorities to detain migrant children for months, even years, while their cases are heard. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the new rule would serve as a deterrent to keep immigrants from coming to the United States.

ACTING DHS SECRETARY KEVIN McALEENAN: No child should be a pawn in a scheme to manipulate our immigration system, which is why the new rule eliminates the incentive to exploit children as a free ticket, or, as one gentleman in Guatemala told me, a passport for migration to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, 19 states and the District of Columbia sued to block the rule from going into effect.

LEE GELERNT: Right. I mean, what the medical community has said forever is, if you raise children in detention centers, you are doing serious damage to them. And I fear that we’re looking at the worst of both worlds. The administration is continuing to separate families at the border under the pretext that the parent is a danger to the child. So what I fear is going to happen is they’re going to try and separate families at the border; those families that they don’t separate, they’re going to then send to jails and hold them indefinitely. So we’re looking at separations and indefinite detention. And it’s not going to ultimately deter people who are in serious danger from coming. Every mother I talk to, when I say, “Would you have come anyway if you had known this was going to happen?” they just shrug and say, “What choice did I have? I couldn’t stay and have me and my son be killed.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what’s happening with separated families. We talked to you repeatedly —

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — during the last few years on this issue. “Separated families” has almost become an antiseptic term. Children taken away from their parents.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happened to them? How many are still apart from their families?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, so, we had thought that we had put a halt on this last summer. It turns out the administration is continuing to separate families. We’re now approaching about a thousand families who have been separated just since the injunction the court issued last summer. The government is saying, “We found a loophole: The judge said we can separate families, take little children away, if the parent is a danger.” We assumed that meant that they are finding parents with very, very serious crimes and where there’s a genuine reason to believe the parent is a danger to the child. It turns out, from the government’s own evidence, that they’re separating — one case, it said a misdemeanor theft of $5 in the past, or even traffic violations. That’s what they’re claiming is a basis for separation.

And not only that, but you had mentioned the sort of little children. More little children are being separated now than last summer at the height of “zero tolerance.” Twenty percent of the children are under 5, including children 1 and 2 years old — literally ripping babies away, claiming, “Your parent is too dangerous to allow you to stay there.” We look at the sheet on the parent, maybe a misdemeanor theft or a DUI in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: You even have the situation in Mississippi, the recent huge raid —

LEE GELERNT: Right, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — on the chicken plants, where the children are weeping. They’re going home in buses from school, and there’s no one there.

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, I mean, so that’s the thing. The administration puts out this soundbite: “We’re going after hardened criminals, national security threats.” But then, when you actually look at who they’re going after, they’re going after workers in Mississippi. Now they’re going to deport children with cancer. They’re going after military families. The reality on the ground is nothing like the soundbites you hear from the administration. This is an all-out attack on immigrants.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration plans to shift over $270 million of federal funds, including at least $155 million from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, to help pay for its highly contested, quote, “Remain in Mexico” policy. The funds would pay for temporary courts on the southern border to hear cases of asylum seekers who have been forced to return to Mexico while their cases proceed through the U.S. legal system. Money also to be used to add nearly 7,000 more spaces to immigrant prisons?

LEE GELERNT: Right. I mean, it’s all about law enforcement. It’s all about the symbolism, the politics. Everyone knows the wall is not actually going to do anything. And not only that, but they’re taking the money from real needs, from the military, from various other things, FEMA. And this is a situation where it’s all about: How is it going to look? What can I use as a soundbite?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this story. But we’re going to ask you to stay with us, Lee Gelernt, for the hour, because we’re going to the U.S.-Mexico border — we just came back from there last week — to look at the case of a 16-year-old Mexican teenager who was gunned down in Mexico —

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — by a U.S. border agent —

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — who shot through the wall. And we want to talk to you about this case —

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — after we talk to his mother and his grandmother. We met them on the Mexico side of the border as they stood in the very place where their boy, José Antonio, lay dying in 2012. There’s a little altar to him there.

LEE GELERNT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll talk about what’s happened in this case and why it could be soon determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Lee Gelernt is deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. He’s staying with us for the hour. Stay with us.