"Imagine if we tried to prosecute everyone who jaywalked." That's the analogy Jessica Therkelsen, director of the Pro Bono Justice Program at One Justice, uses to describe the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for undocumented immigrants. The House will attempt to address some of the most urgent immigration issues — including those prompted by the recent policy change — with two House immigration bill votes scheduled for next week.
Crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor. But under a new directive from the Department of Justice that went into effect in April, migrants who come into the United States illegally are now treated as federal offenders. And because kids are legally barred from being detained in federal facilities, children of incarcerated migrants must be separated from their parents.
Reports of the human results of this policy have been harrowing. One undocumented immigrant from Honduras said immigration agents took her infant from her while she was breastfeeding. During a two-week period in May alone, Customs and Border Protection reported that 658 children were taken from their parents at the border.
"The Trump Administration is slamming the door on victims of domestic and gender-based violence and re-traumatizing them by ripping their children from them."
Congressional inaction on this emotionally charged issue recently led to an almost unheard-of situation in the House, with a small band of moderate Republicans working with unanimous Democratic support to force a House debate on immigration, despite the protest of House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Republican leader narrowly avoided a rare discharge vote by agreeing to bring two immigration bills to the floor next week.
The first bill the House will vote on is favored by hard-line conservatives. While it grants temporary legal status to DACA (Deferred Action on Child Arrivals) recipients, the bill also makes big cuts to legal immigration and bolsters "interior enforcement," according to Vox's Tara Golshan. It's the ostensibly more moderate second bill — which remains almost entirely unwritten — that might include an answer to Trump's policy of family separation that one Democratic senator has dubbed a "human rights abuse."
Therkelsen tells Bustle that Trump's immigration policies are "extremely targeted at women and children," especially young mothers who are trying to come to the United States with their kids.
It's a stance echoed in unsparing language by Tom Jawetz, vice president on Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress. He tells Bustle that "the Trump Administration is slamming the door on victims of domestic and gender-based violence and re-traumatizing them by ripping their children from them." Bustle has reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services for comment.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently directed immigration judges to quit granting asylum to immigrants who report fleeing due to domestic abuse or gang-related violence. As Evan Halper wrote in the L.A. Times, it's a policy that would bar "especially women" from seeking refuge in the United States.
Therkelsen notes that while a halt on family separation is "very important," she says, "it's also important for us to realize that if their [Republicans'] answer is to keep families together by detaining them indefinitely, that is extremely problematic." Such a policy would "violate international and domestic law," she tells Bustle.
Therkelsen points specifically to the Flores Agreement, which applies to any child in the United States, citizen or not. It requires that "kids are supposed to be released from custody as quickly as possible and detained in the least restrictive setting appropriate for their age." The average stay for detained children at the largest shelter in Texas is 52 days.
For those who want to ensure humane policies are enacted for migrants and their families, Jawetz recommends "tweeting at your representative with the hashtag #FamiliesBelongTogether." He also directs concerned parties to call their representatives directly through the Capitol switchboard number at 202-224-3121.
Therkelsen agrees, telling Bustle she thinks "people should definitely get out there" and "let their voices be heard." The U.S. immigration system allows courts and politicians "the power to push back against these policies, but they have to take action." And "citizens have to push politicians to take the right steps."