In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the federal government would adopt a zero-tolerance policy of criminally prosecuting all migrants for unauthorized border crossings, including those legally seeking asylum. This policy officially instituted practices that separated children from their families. Within the first six weeks of this zero-tolerance policy in place, the number of children separated from their families rose well beyond 2,000.
Congress and the Administration must act immediately to terminate the zero-tolerance policy and take swift action to reunite children with their families.
In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the federal government would adopt a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossings, pledging to refer anyone who crosses into the United States for criminal prosecution, regardless of the reason. Under this policy, families seeking asylum who illegally cross the border will be treated as criminals, rather than asylum seekers. The adults will be charged with a federal misdemeanor and, before June 20, the children were treated as if they were unaccompanied minors. Within the first six weeks of this zero-tolerance policy in place, the number of children separated from their families rose well beyond 2,000.
On June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order that would allow families to stay together, but for an “indefinite” period of time in detention while the parents are criminally prosecuted. The executive order did not end the zero-tolerance policy put in place by Attorney General Sessions and will continue to treat asylum seekers as criminals.
On June 26, 2018, a San Diego-based U.S. District Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering the federal government to reunite migrant parents with children separated as a result of the zero-tolerance policy. The injunction required that nearly all children younger than five years old be reunited with their parents by July 10, and that children older than the age of five be reunited by July 26. On July 12, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared that reunification for all children under five had been completed. HHS reunited 57 children under the age of five with their parents; and identified 46 children as ineligible for reunification because parental relationship could not be confirmed, the child’s parents had already been deported, or the child’s parents had a criminal background which made them unsuitable for reunification. Questions remain about what will happen to these 46 children, including those whose parents were already deported.
HHS is continuing to work to reunify the children older than five years old who were separated from their parents. The department has identified the number of children possibly eligible for reunification under the court order and has provided their plan for reunification. We must hold the administration accountable for reuniting these children immediately.
President Trump’s executive order included language requesting relief from previously-set limits on how long children can be kept in detention (no more than 20 days) so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could detain families indefinitely. On July 9, 2018, a Los Angeles-based U.S. District Court Judge denied the government’s request, a decision that preserved the limitations in place on the detention of minors and therefore prevents the administration from detaining families indefinitely.
Because these two court orders work in conflict, families are being released from custody and equipped with ankle monitors to ensure they appear at scheduled court hearings on their immigration cases.
Children separated from their families are enduring trauma and being exposed to a system that is at best under-resourced and at worst abusive. Documents obtained by the ACLU allege that children detained by Customs and Border Protection, which holds the children when they are first separated from their families, have sustained insults, threats and physical abuse. These stories raise serious doubts about our government’s ability to safeguard children.
We join our partners in the immigrant community and people of faith and conscience to express our outrage at the Administration’s immoral decision to use the threat of family separation and indefinite family incarceration to deter immigration. The President, the Attorney General and officials at the Department of Homeland Security must adopt enforcement mechanisms that keep families together and protect the rights of those people seeking asylum in this country, and members of Congress should urge them to do the same. This crisis will not be resolved until the Administration rescinds the zero-tolerance policy and reunites every child who has already been separated from their family.
Our tradition calls on us to welcome the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. We are commanded to turn our attention towards the widow, the orphan and the stranger and to show love and care for them. Policies that separate immigrant families and indefinitely detain asylum seekers dehumanize those coming to seek a better life here in the United States and fall short of our mandate to be a welcoming society.
We are taught, “A society and a family are like a pile of stones. If you remove one stone, the pile will collapse. If you add a stone to it, it will stand” (Genesis Rabbah 100:7). Our Jewish values compel us to demand that children be reunited with their families.
In Jeremiah 31:15 we read, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are gone." Rachel's great sadness is being perpetrated by our own government on our own soil. We join Rachel’s cry – because children have been separated and locked away from their parents.
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