The Trump Administration, after days of saying it had no choice, reversed its policy of forcefully separating families at the border. Massive public outrage, accompanied by the voices of religious leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, forced the President on Wednesday to alter his policy even though significant questions about what happens now remain unanswered.
In addition to separating families at the border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced that the United States would no longer accept asylum applications for those fleeing domestic or gang violence.
The combination of restrictions lead to swift reaction:
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The Attorney General's recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection…Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives.”
That was last week. This week, images of school-age children separated from families – provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – hit the public hard. No video of toddlers, placed in what the federal government calls “tender-age” centers, was offered but that did not stop the growing outrage. It was also learned that children taken from their parents at the border have been sent as far away as New York and Wisconsin.
“We are now a nation where “zero tolerance” means no mercy,” wrote Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. “We seem proud to announce that we will no longer grant asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. In the name of protecting our borders, we are willing to break up families and shatter the lives of innocent children.”
The President’s alteration of his policy created more questions. For instance, DHS said it has no plans to try to unify the more than 2,300 children already taken from their parents. (DHS offered these instructions for finding children.) The Executive Order says that families will be detained together but a previous Federal court order limits that to 20 days maximum. Pressed to handle all the legal proceeding stemming from its policy, the Administration is now bringing in attorneys from the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, untrained in immigration law to handle prosecutions. Finally, facilities for keeping families together may be hard to locate.
“We will be watching to see whether the administration follows the law concerning how long it may keep families in detention,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC). Under a court order and settlement agreement in the Flores v. Reno case, which governs care for juveniles in immigration detention, minors being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement must be released after 20 days. An executive order cannot supersede a court order.
Archbishop Gomez welcomed the change in policy but urged Congress to act on immigration reform. However, the U.S. House is stymied.
One immigration bill, proposed by immigration opponents and even sought to reduce legal immigration, failed. The vote on a “compromise” bill crafted by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and other members of leadership was postponed because it did not have the necessary votes to pass. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported neither bill.