The Trump administration has found yet another way to torment immigrant families who are undocumented. A new surge initiative is being carried out by ICE and is supposed to result in “disrupting and dismantling” smuggling and human trafficking rings. On the surface this sounds like something immigration advocates would welcome and embrace. But with closer scrutiny, it becomes clear this new initiative is also geared to disrupt and dismantle immigrant families as ICE agents have been given a new priority – to arrest and detain immigrant parents who pay for their children to be brought across the US border. Instead of only targeting the profiteers – the smuggling operations, coyotes, and human trafficking rings – ICE has orders to also go after the parents.
The young children and adolescents crossing the border are considered to be unaccompanied minors once they are detained by Customs & Border Patrol. Most of them are fleeing Central America; they are leaving countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala where they are vulnerable to gang violence and high rates of homicide. Admittedly, most often they are likely brought into the US by someone paid off by their parents – after all, it’s not like there are a whole lot of other options. Despite this, the Obama administration did the humane thing and allowed these families to reunite by releasing the children into the custody of their parents while asylum or deportation cases played out in immigration court. After all, unaccompanied minors are often traumatized and housing them with a caring parent seems like the most sensible thing to do.
However, last February a memorandum was released by DHS Secretary Kelly indicating Obama’s humane policy was about to end. This memo, being issued to implement two of President Trump’s executive orders, included directives that raised red flags among immigration advocacy groups. It laid out how new policies would be implemented that would target for deportation anyone who directly or indirectly facilitated the illegal smuggling or trafficking of an alien child into the United States. Through this memo, a warning shot was fired by the new administration that disrupting and dismantling human trafficking rings wasn’t their only priority; parents who were reunified with their unaccompanied minor children as a result of the previous administration’s policies were also in the crosshairs.
Having unaccompanied minors and their parents being targeted in the above mentioned memo was so troubling that attorneys from Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) prepared a practice advisory in order to assist legal practitioners who represent child clients in removal proceedings and to help them advise family members of such children. It cannot be understated how important it is for legal advocacy groups to quickly respond with effective strategies when these types of laws are put into place. While I do not represent unaccompanied minors or have any of their parents as clients, I have many colleagues who do and am fully aware of what they are experiencing as the Trump administration targets yet another cohort of immigrants they view as a priority to put into deportation proceedings.
To date, there are reports of ICE agents visiting the homes of unaccompanied minors after they are released to start deportation proceedings against their parents. There are other reports of parents being arrested and detained by ICE as they accompany their children to scheduled ICE appointments. As I write this, Secretary Kelly has been reassigned and no longer heads the Department of Homeland Security. It is unknown who his predecessor will be but I long for the days when DHS was led by someone like former Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson who held the position under President Obama.
For weeks now the debate surrounding the unaccompanied minors from Central American has continued to grow and overall it has created a debate in the US that has a harsh and uncompromising tone. This dispute has recently started to take place closer to home as Syracuse elected officials and leaders, as well as its residents, grapple with whether or not these children should be housed in Onondaga County at the site of a former convent even though it is located 2,000 miles north of the Mexican border. There are opinions on both sides of the debate that include those who would put out a welcome mat for the children and those who firmly have the “Not in My Back Yard” mindset, or, more accurately stated, “Not in Any American’s Back Yard”.
Since the news broke that Syracuse’s mayor, Stephanie Miner, went on the record stating that she supports bringing the children to upstate New York, I have been closely following her constituents’ reactions. My informal content analysis of social media and the local online Syracuse news (including over 1000 reader comments that quickly drew the battle lines) reveals that the debate taking place in Syracuse reflects the debate taking place in small and large cities around the US. Syracuse is a microcosm of what has been going on in the rest of the country; its city’s residents are polarized on the topic of migrant children and the increasing tension from both sides of the immigration debate is palpable.
To provide a little background about how Syracuse got launched into the immigration debate, this article on Syracuse.com pretty much covers its onset. When Mayor Miner sent President Obama an official letter stating Syracuse would “welcome the establishment of a site in Syracuse” to house some of the migrant children, the seeds of the debate were planted. And when she followed it with “I believe that my position, and Syracuse’s position, is the exception,” the debate erupted and the stand off began.
Having this debate take place so close to home interests me on so many levels. As a legal advocate, I have a firm opinion that the unaccompanied minors should be offered refugee protection and due process. I also work for the Catholics who have taken a firm stance, similar to my own, that the US needs to offer the children protection, as well as address the root causes that are causing poverty and the rise in violence in Central America. And as an upstate New Yorker, I am curious to see how Syracuse residents are responding to the possibility of some of the migrant children taking refuge in our part of the state.
Our office has been receiving several inquiries about what can be done locally to assist the unaccompanied minors who are crossing the border. Advocacy around this is certainly needed and for those in New York who want to voice your concerns, you can call 1-866-940-2439 to be connected with the offices of your Representative and both NY Senators. Then either call them and let them know you strongly oppose any rollbacks to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) or let them know you are calling to support this letter already sent to Congress from the New York Immigration Coalition.
Ithacans and other upstate New Yorkers can also certainly enter into the Syracuse debate – Syracuse.com has been announcing the times & dates of all public forums, protests, and rallies surrounding it. I am sure Mayor Miner, activist Rebecca Fuentes (pictured at the top), and other Syracuse immigration advocates would appreciate some additional allies. I firmly stand behind the Mayor and as an upstate New Yorker I am proud to be a neighbor of a city that has an elected official who is willing to take a seemingly not-so-popular stance in order to protect a group of vulnerable migrant children.
I recently returned from the 2014 National Migration Conference, held in Washington D.C. by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Much of its focus was on how many people are on the move right now, often migrating from their home countries to a foreign country as they flee violence, genocide, warfare, natural disasters and oppression, and specifically, how many of them on the move are children. I am still trying to process how much of the world is in crisis and the extraordinary number of children who have already been harmed or are in harm’s way.
We learned about many dire situations throughout the world that involved children such as the child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and how that country is going to have a lost generation of males as a result. Equally tragic, we also heard about the DRC’s high incidences of rape against its young female adolescents – a brutal form of gender-based violence. Officials also provided updates on the aftermath of natural disasters, such as Haiti’s 2012 earthquake, and reported on how many children are struggling with PTSD, as well as trying to adapt to a life where many of them are missing one or more limbs.
The situation facing children fleeing Syria was particularly heart-rending. Not only are they being uprooted from their home country and forced to migrate; but they are also suffering from PTSD as they adjust to their new identity as orphans. The only beacon of light in that situation was hearing how Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are stepping up to the plate and taking them in by the hundreds of thousands with hospitality and dignity. In fact, the Jordanian government has opened up their school system, allowing for Jordanian children to attend school in the morning and the Syrian children to attend school in the afternoon. The attempt to normalize the lives of these traumatized children by letting them become students again is admirable.
While part of the conference placed a spotlight on the children in crisis living in the countries mentioned above the main focus was on the current crisis at our own border and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors coming from Central America. The resounding message was the immediate need to offer these children protection; to provide them with access to legal counsel, as well as due process as they flee the violence, drug cartels, and narco gangs and migrate to the US. As one official put it, there is a need to respond with compassion and to change the country’s discourse to the fact that these children “are refugees and not accidental tourists waiting to go to Disneyland.”
When there is a country in crisis and people are forced to migrate, the US always takes the position that neighboring countries need to open up their borders and treat anyone fleeing with dignity and compassion. Whether it is in our hemisphere (e.g., Haitians reaching the Dominican Republic’s border) or half way around the world (Burmese refugees reaching Thailand’s border), the US has always been unwavering in these expectations. So it is really disheartening to see this is not happening on our continent; not only in the halls of Congress, but in places such as Murrieta, California – where the images of those busses of children and their mothers being forced to turn around because of angry protesters is still etched in my brain. Somehow our unwavering policy to treat people on the move with dignity and compassion doesn’t apply when it happens in our own sphere.
When you juxtapose the Jordanians welcoming Syrian refugee children into their school systems against what you see in the photo above we should all question what has happened to our ability to show humanity and compassion. Allowing traumatized children some normalcy in their lives by allowing them to attend school is admirable. Forcing a busload of children in crisis to turn around or calling for the National Guard to come to the border (as Governor Rick Perry is doing) to stop other unaccompanied minors from crossing it is shameful. If we expect countries around the world to open up their borders when there is a crisis, especially when children are involved, the US needs to do the same. We seriously need to rethink what we are doing and ask ourselves how we have mutated into a country that would put our own selfish needs above the needs of migrant children who are in crisis.