Immigration reform has been a long-standing issue for the United States. Recently, measures to counteract the climactic wave of immigrants from Central America have come under bipartisan fire for their flagrant mistreatment of those immigrating. A zero-tolerance policy which was issued by the current administration last April has led to the separation of over 2000 children from their parents, most of which are being kept in makeshift shelters under poor conditions.
Though the separation of illegally-crossing families has been a historical practice in the United States, the injustice lies in the substandard treatment of these individuals since the enactment of the latest policy.
In the past, if a family was caught illegally crossing the border and refused to voluntarily return, they would be in obstruction of the law and sent to separate detention centers – one for the minors and one for the adults. Typically, this was done for the safety of the children as most detention centers are general-purpose jails. Another reason, and one that prompts the current policy, is that separating families encourages people to voluntarily deport, which ends up saving the US government a lot of resources and expedites the immigration process for those they believe are actually in need of asylum.
This practice has not changed but due to referendums in immigration policy made by the Obama Administration, immigrants are approaching their entry differently. Whereas before, most Central American immigrants turned back after being denied entry, the Obama administration began to allow most anyone who made an asylum claim entry into the US as long as they had a friend or family to stay with. This resulted in a rise in asylum claims from immigrants caught at the border, though the validity of these claims remains to be verified.
To counteract the influx of asylum claims, the new policy by the Trump Administration has granted border patrol officers the discretion to verify or deny these claims right at the border. If the claims are verified, the immigrants can proceed under the same policies as enacted by the Obama Administration, if not, and if they crossed illegally, they are placed in a detention center while they await the verification of their asylum claim through the legal system.
Those denied a claim can abandon their journey to entry and not be put in detention centers. They are either housed in a cell until transportation back to their home country can be arranged or are allowed to turn and walk or drive back of their own accord.
Herein lies the problem. While border patrol agents are following protocol, they are doing so haphazardly. They are obstructing investigation into the living conditions of those housed in these makeshift facilities, keeping detainees indefinitely, and threatening and following through with violence, thereby dehumanizing and stripping these immigrants of their civil liberties.
Initially separating children from the adults they came with is valid – border patrol officers should determine if these children are being abused by their company, or worse yet, smuggled into the sex trade – but indefinite separation is cruel and unjust. Using this as a scare tactic to reduce illegal immigration is counterproductive and doesn’t tackle the real issue at hand – as one US senator aptly stated “this bad new policy is a reaction against a bad, old policy.” What needs to change is not how we reduce and try to control immigration (as most of the latest band of immigrants have shown they are willing to take appropriate measures to legally cross into the US), but how we tackle immigration policy.