Neglectful Treatment of Children Heightens Cruelty in Immigration Policy

Last week, stories of children emphasized the failings of immigration law, of the systems that foreign nationals encounter here, and of the current administration’s outlook on the issue. The Department of Health and Homeland Security’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) lost 1,475 children in its custody. Since 2014, the number of children arriving at our southern border seeking safety and refuge in the United States has grown dramatically, and if they have contact with the Department of Homeland Security, ORR processes them. It can release children to family or guardians, but those children are often released to individuals who have undergone little to no background checks.  Most of these children are placed into proceedings that are designed to get them deported from the United States as quickly as possible.  While there is a right to counsel in these proceedings, there is no court provided counsel or individual whose job it is to keep up with the location and safety of the child or guardian. 

A Houston Chronicle story dramatized the issue with the account of a Guatemalan man who came to America with his toddler to find work to pay back the mortgage he had to take on his property to pay his child’s medical expenses. He was detained by U.S. Border Patrol and separated from his child. When it came time to deport him three months later, Border Patrol didn’t know where his toddler was and sent him home alone. This anecdote would by itself represent a dramatic failing on the part of an agency, but it’s particularly problematic because Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that foreign nationals who cross the border from Mexico without authorization will be separated from their children if they travel with them. “If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,” Sessions said. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

In short, the government may not plan to lose more children, but it plans to recreate the conditions that led to the losses.

Critics have called the anti-immigration policy cruel, and as Sessions makes clear, it is—intentionally so. It is a potential punishment designed to act as a deterrent. When Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants, he did so emphasizing the Trump Administration’s aggressive stance on the issue, promising that federal prosecutors would take on as of these cases as possible with a goal of 100 percent. Although President Trump campaigned on the posture reflected in Sessions’ words and actions, Trump tried to distance himself from them on Saturday during the Memorial Day Weekend. “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.,” he said in a tweet.

It is not law that separates children from parents. It is the implementation of policy—a policy created by his Department of Justice. And it is not punishing those who cross the border illegally. It punishes those who follow the rules and present themselves at a designated point of entry to apply for asylum. It's simply an effort to make applying for asylum as traumatic and painful as possible to discourage people from considering asylum in America as a viable option.

The 1,475 children were lost last year, and they entered the system after crossing the southern border alone. The number doesn’t reflect any that have been separated from their parents since May 6, but the stories have become muddled together because they represent a callous disregard for the lives of children and the humanity of people trying to cross America’s southern border. We have a broken immigration system that is weaponizing families’ love for each other–not just those arriving at the borders but those who have been here with authorization for decades.  As enforcement is wielded without priorities and programs such as TPS and DACA are ended, the destruction of families and communities will grow.  As Attorney General Sessions takes steps to limit the ability of immigration judges to control their dockets and apply the law in a fair manner, the idea of an impartial judiciary becomes a farce. Any system or policy that keeps children in detention merely because they want to be safe (or come from what President Trump would call a shithole country) should shake our moral conscience. Placing the burden on a child to find an attorney or navigate the most complicated area of law alone is absurd, and it is certainly not due process. 

The children who have to deal with the immigration courts are near to our hearts. This law firm in part flowed out of “PB&J: Pro Bono and Juveniles,” a project we undertook in 2014 to help match children who were fleeing humanitarian crises in their Central American homes with the legal help and support systems necessary to get them proper representation in court. We still have too many immigrant children traveling through the judicial system in New Orleans without legal representation.

 If you wish to help these children, we recommend a few things:

- Call your federal representatives. Tell them you support the establishment of an Article I Immigration Court.  This is a concrete measure that will help ensure that removal proceedings are conducted in a Constitutional manner and with due process. While you are there, tell them you support DACA, DAPA, and immigration reform. Tell them you do not support a wall and you do not support a budget that funds HHS without solving the issue of due process and protecting children.

- Call your state/city/municipal representatives. Tell them you support city and state sanctuary policies. Sanctuary policies mean that kids who are at risk of harm and trafficking will not be afraid to go to the police or a person in authority. Tell them you support ESL programs in school. Tell them you support any programs that assist kids of any age. The more contact we have with kids, the far less likely they are to get lost.

- Show up. When there is a march for DACA or TPS or immigrants, show up. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of U.S. citizens have at least one grandparent who was not born in the country. That makes you an immigrant.

- Help your neighbor make a plan. If someone in your life is at risk of deportation or could be at risk of deportation, then help them make a plan. A few simple steps can help keep kids safe.

- If you want peace/equality/equity/unity, work for justice. At a national/ regional level we recommend supporting (in no particular order!)

The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project

The Southern Poverty Law Center

The ACLU

- If you want to keep it local, there are a number of organizations that do great work in the area. I promise you, they are all underfunded with long waiting lines and are worth any type of support you can provide.

 The Pelican Center for Children & Families is a Louisiana non-profit organization dedicated to improving outcomes for Louisiana's children & families. 

The New Orleans Family Justice Center offers various services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. 

Project Ishmael has a pro bono immigration legal program for children in New Orleans.

Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans provides free or low-cost immigration services as well as immigration legal representation and holistic case management to unaccompanied children from Central America who have been reunified with family/sponsors in the Greater New Orleans area.

Loyola Law School, Immigration Clinic provides direct representation and Know Your Rights Presentations.

New Orleans’ Workers Center for Racial Justice 

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, offering civil legal representation in Louisiana.

Luke’s House, offering medical services.

Louisiana Language Access Coalition promotes full and meaningful participation in public life, without barriers based on language, for all people.

Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge

El Pubelo in Biloxi, Mississippi 

I am sure we have missed a few organizations that do great work. Please let us know, and we will add them to our post.

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