Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 25.
The Trump administration seems to confuse asylum-seekers with undocumented immigrants. People seeking asylum are nearly always fleeing serious danger after having suffered deep personal tragedy and persecution. It is not a crime to seek safe haven.
The Department of Homeland Security has decided it needs to deter asylum-seekers by setting an example of punishment for those already here. The latest tactic is to yank children from their parents, as if to tell others: Try it here, and your children could be taken away.
A case in point involves a 7-year-old Congolese girl forcibly separated from her mother for four months, beginning in November in Southern California. The mother, 39, feared imminent death in her home country. Immigration officials told her they believed she had a strong asylum case. In a matter of days, and without explanation, they put her in a detention facility near San Diego. Her daughter was sent to a facility for unaccompanied minors in Chicago, treated as if she were among the thousands of children who have attempted alone to cross the border illegally from Mexico.
The asylum system functions according to U.S. treaty obligations under international law. Sovereign nations have a right to protect their borders from illegal entry, but they have a legal duty to provide shelter to refugees, including asylum-seekers.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that foreigners and “dirty immigration lawyers” were gaming the system, and that asylum had become an “easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.” But federal law allows foreigners to seek permanent residency and eventually U.S. citizenship if they fear persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or other affiliations. In 2014, a credible fear of domestic violence was added as an asylum criterion.
The worst possible outcome in persecution cases is for the U.S. government to order that person’s deportation to her or his country of origin. By forcibly detaining asylum-seekers in prisonlike conditions and separating them from their children, the Trump administration is signaling its intention to send a harsh “don’t come here” message.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups recently filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nine detained asylum-seekers from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries. The suit asks a judge to order the administration to follow a 2009 policy that allows officials to release foreigners who meet a series of stringent requirements while they await asylum hearings in immigration court.
The Trump administration’s stated goal is to halt illegal immigration, starting with criminal immigrants. That’s a far cry from separating families and punishing foreigners trying to comply with U.S. laws by declaring their asylum-seeking status up front.
Asylum-seekers are not lawbreakers. They deserve a chance to prove their case without being punished for it.