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June 19, 2018

What's Happening to Families at the Border 101

So you want to know what's happening to children at the border and aren't sure where to start? No problem! It's complicated. Here we've answered some frequently asked questions about the Trump Administration's cruel zero-tolerance policy that is ripping apart families seeking protection in the United States.

Let's start with the basics. What is asylum?

After World War II, the United States and other nations promised not to return people to persecution in their home country when that country refused or failed to protect them. 

The United States has long been a refuge to people fleeing religious, political, and other persecution. Seeking asylum is a human right and protected in U.S. law. It is not illegal, and it is not a loophole in the immigration system.

Why are people from Central America fleeing?

The Northern Triangle in Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—is one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Murder, gang violence, and violence against women are rampant. Of the five most dangerous countries in the world, two are Syria and Yemen—war zones—and the other three are located in Central America.

The U.N. Refugee Agency just reported a significant increase in people fleeing the region and seeking protection in countries including—but not only—the United States. 

How does someone ask for asylum in the United States?

Here’s how the system usually works: when a person seeking protection shows up at a port of entry—an airport, a bridge, or an official entry point— they tell U.S. border officers that they are afraid of returning to their home country and can ask for asylum. After that happens, they’re supposed to be given an initial screening to determine whether they will be allowed to apply for asylum. 

Once people seeking protection have met that screening standard, they should generally be released while they wait for their asylum hearing. Then, after a hearing, a judge will either grant or deny their asylum application.

Sometimes, people cross in the dessert, or between ports of entry. Those people also have a legal right to ask for protection, and go through the asylum system as well.

Increasingly, people asking for protection are being sent to immigration detention for incredibly long periods of time and are not released on bail, even if they can show that they aren’t a flight risk and don’t have a criminal record. Sometimes they are detained with their children if they came here together. And now, what’s new is that the Trump Administration is separating parents from children and wants to hold families and other people seeking protection in detention for even longer.

Why would a person cross between a port of entry?

There are a bunch or reasons someone might do this. One reason is that even though people are supposed to be allowed to ask for asylum at an official border point, the Trump Administration has taken a number of steps to make that very, very difficult.

What is the Trump Administration doing to discourage asylum seekers at official entry points?

Border agents have:

  1. Illegally turned back asylum seekers at the border, telling them that they are not allowed to ask for asylum or that they aren’t eligible. 
  2. Made asylum seekers wait for days at border crossings, saying that there are “capacity issues.” But the claims that U.S. border points are full appear to be orchestrated. Many of the people who want protection and are turned away wind up sleeping on the ground until they can be processed.  
  3. Physically barred asylum seekers from entering the United States. At some border crossings, agents have set up a temporary checkpoint in front of the actual border to check people’s documents. If they don’t have them, they are turned away or turned over to Mexican officials and potentially deported. This is an enormous departure from previous policy, and illegal.

For some people desperately fleeing for their lives, the decision to cross between official points is due to these illegal roadblocks set up by this administration.

What is the Trump Administration doing to people they pick up between border points?

Under previous administrations in most cases, when a person crossed between a port of entry, they would generally be picked up and put in deportation proceedings, which is a civil, not criminal, trial.

The Bush and Obama Administrations began criminally prosecuting people, including asylum seekers, for entering the United States between official border points, but that policy has ramped up like crazy under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy. They are prosecuting all people who are picked up between official border points, regardless of whether these people are asylum seekers or are traveling with children. 

With border crossings at 46-year lows, the people being targeted by the Trump Administration are mostly families and others fleeing violence and persecution.  

These prosecutions are criminal trials, unlike civil deportation hearings. These people are being prosecuted in mass hearings and may even serve jail time. 

When a parent is criminally prosecuted for the crime of illegal entry, they’re held in federal criminal custody to await their trial even though the crime they are charged with is a misdemeanor, like public intoxication. Since children can’t be held in federal jails, they are being ripped apart from their families.

What do these trials look like?

Many people are being prosecuted in mass trials, with dozens of defendants at one time. Some people only have a few minutes to meet with their attorneys ahead of time. In some cases, the courtrooms are so full of defendants that there is no space to allow outside observers in.

That sounds bad. Why don’t asylum seekers just stay in Mexico?

Well, some of them do. Asylum seekers who feel safe in Mexico can and do stay there and ask for protection there. In fact, asylum requests all over the region have gone up astronomically in the past few years.

But for many people seeking asylum, Mexico just is not safe. For journalists, LGBT persons, and many women and children, Mexico is just not capable of protecting them. 

Are asylum seekers having their kids ripped away?

Yes. Again, some asylum seekers do cross between official entry points, and are being scooped up and prosecuted by this administration, regardless of the fact that it is not illegal for them to seek asylum.

There have also been some reports of asylum seekers having their kids ripped away from them at official border points. 

What happens to the kids while their parents are going through a criminal trial?

After children—some as young as four months old—are ripped away from their parents, they are sent to facilities —essentially detention camps for kids. They’re there for weeks or even months and are then placed with a relative or in foster care.

It’s hard to overstate how damaging this separation and detention is for children, many of whom have already been traumatized in their home countries. Thousands of pediatricians recently sent a letter to the administration outlining the effects of detention on children.

How do parents get their kids back once they’ve been separated?

It’s difficult, and there’s no real process for it. Flyers with a phone number have been handed out to parents so that they can find out where their children are being held, but these parents are being held in detention and cannot really navigate the U.S. legal system without help. Plus, the government takes away the parents' cell phones and those held in detention often have little access to a telephone.

I’ve heard that many of the kids in detention weren’t separated from their parents and came by themselves. Is this true?

Yes. Some children, especially those fleeing gang violence, entered the United States by themselves and are called unaccompanied children. These children, like those separated by from their parents by border agents, are placed in government custody and then released to a relative or held in foster care.

Sessions and Trump say they’re just enforcing the law. Is this true?

No. There is NO LAW that requires the Trump Administration to separate vulnerable children from their parents. This is a policy choice that the administration is making, and it is unnecessarily cruel.

Furthermore, by turning back those seeking protection the administration is actually BREAKING the law.

Did Sessions just block protection for victims of domestic violence?

Sessions is trying to block survivors of violence from protection in this country. He unilaterally decided that victims of domestic violence or gang violence, and other persecution he dismissed as “private violence” are not eligible for asylum, which has been U.S. policy for decades. This could impact many of the asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America.