June 23, 2018

The Terrible Price of Zero Tolerance Immigration


A contractor with the federal government has applied to the state of Texas for a license to house up to 240 immigrant children between the ages of 0 and 17 at 415 Emancipation Avenue, Houston, June 16, 2018. Flickr/Patrick Feller.


The US Attorney General claims these separations are justified by the Bible and will deter illegal immigration, though there is no evidence backing either claim. His is a minority position.


By Dr. Robert Muggah / 06.19.2018
Co-Founder, Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Group


Within minutes of crossing the border, they are ripped from their mothers arms. The children, some of them still breastfeeding, are shuffled into temporary shelters. Their parents are marched to detention centers where they are kept under lock and key. Stories and images are emerging of toddlers, adolescents and teenagers crammed into cages. After making the treacherous voyage from Central America and Mexico, asylum seekers and migrants are treated like stray dogs on arrival. Even wailing babies find little consolation: government policy is that they are not to be touched. The psychological damage, stress and emotional trauma they endure is incalculable.

Welcome to Donald Trump’s America. Since US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance immigration policy two months ago, roughly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. The reality is no one knows for sure. Sessions claims that these separations are justified by the Bible and will deter illegal immigration, though there is no evidence backing either claim. His is a minority position. Yet while most critics agree that the new policy is cruel and inhumane, Sessions and others in the Trump administration are undeterred. People seeking safe refugee are being charged with a criminal offence the moment they arrive. US officials don´t care if they have legitimate asylum claims: every new arrival is going straight to jail.

The banality of evil is thriving in border states like TexasNew Mexico and Arizona. In implementing zero tolerance, stone-faced patrol officers and over-worked social workers – “neither perverted nor sadistic” – are acting in terrifyingly normal ways. As Hannah Arendt once said of the Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolph Eichmann, it is their “inability … to think from the standpoint of somebody else” that is leading civil servants to condone monstrous injustices. Their hearts are not filled with malice – but their actions are cruel beyond words.

Just consider the impacts of the new zero tolerance policy from the perspective of asylum seekers and migrants. Shortly after stepping on US soil, babies, toddlers and teens are forcibly removed from their parents, sometimes in the most deceitful and horrific ways. Stories are emerging of children being led away by US customs officials “for a bath”, with questioning parents later told they will not see their children again. Witnesses have described how border guards not only deny information about their children´s whereabouts, but tell the parents that they will be prosecuted and are unwelcome. Virtually all new arrivals are deposited in adult detention centers for “expedited removal”, with most deported.

Most of the children who are separated from their parents and families are parted for extended periods of time. Once processed by the Department of Homeland Security, they are shuffled through Health and Human Services and deposited in one of the hundred or so temporary shelters set up around the US. In some cases they are united with family members or acquaintances living in the US, assuming they can be found.

Most often they are not. There are reports emerging of children weeping inconsolably, unable to explain where they come from or make sense of what has happened. There are no adjudication procedures in place allowing parents to be put in alternative detention centers to be reunited with their kids.

Making matters worse, detained parents are languishing in their cells for six to eight weeks, sometimes much longer. They are required to wait behind bars while they wait to be awarded a “credible fear” interview, essentially an asylum assessment. Given the hardening of US immigration policy and the limited number of available judges in border towns, only a tiny minority eventually have the opportunity to present their case to an immigration judge. It is rare for any claimant to have access to paid advocates or attorneys. As a result, most arrivals are deported instantly. Those who fight their deportation will likely wait another six months or more for a hearing – in jail.

There are also widespread problems with reconnecting parents and separated children after the fact due to the chaotic way in which zero tolerance is being implemented and enforced. The Department of Homeland Security and officials working with Customs and Border Protection separate children from their parents, but they do not care for them for more than a few days. The longer-term welfare support is the jurisdiction of Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Unaccompanied Child Services. There are fears that many children are falling between the cracks, and that family unification is being delayed.

Make no mistake, the US´s zero tolerance immigration strategy is not just immoral, it is illegal. In incarcerating all new arrivals the US is sidestepping international and national jurisprudence, including the Refugee Convention. The use of criminal laws to deter asylum seekers is in violation of Article 31, among others. Not surprisingly, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, described the zero tolerance policy as unconscionable. While human rights and faith based groups across the US and around the world are mobilizing and speaking out, the damage is lasting. This criminal policy will persist so long as ordinary people mindlessly follow orders and stop questioning their actions.


Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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