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The terrible price of zero tolerance immigration

A contractor with the federal government has applied to the state of Texas for a license to house up to 240 immigrant children between the ages of 0 and 17 at 415 Emancipation Avenue, Houston, June 16, 2018. Flickr/Patrick Feller. Some rights reserved.

Within
minutes of crossing the border, they are ripped from their mothers
arms. The children, some of them still breastfeeding, are shuffled into
temporary shelters. Their parents are marched to detention centers where
they are kept under lock and key. Stories and images are emerging of toddlers,
adolescents and teenagers crammed into cages. After making the treacherous
voyage from Central America and Mexico, asylum seekers and migrants are treated
like stray dogs on arrival. Even
wailing babies find little consolation: government policy is that they are not
to be touched. The psychological damage, stress and emotional trauma they
endure is incalculable.

Welcome to
Donald Trump’s America. Since US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance immigration policy two
months ago, roughly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. The
reality is no one knows for sure. Sessions claims that these separations
are justified by the Bible and will deter illegal immigration, though there
is no evidence backing either claim. His is
a minority position. Yet while most critics agree that the new policy is
cruel and inhumane, Sessions and others in the Trump administration
are undeterred. People seeking safe refugee are being charged with a criminal
offence the moment they arrive. US officials don´t care if they have legitimate
asylum claims: every new arrival is going straight to jail.

The
banality of evil is thriving in border states like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. In implementing zero tolerance,
stone-faced patrol officers and over-worked social workers – "neither
perverted nor sadistic" – are acting in terrifyingly normal ways. As
Hannah Arendt once said of the Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolph Eichmann, it is
their "inability … to think from the standpoint of somebody else"
that is leading civil servants to condone monstrous injustices. Their hearts
are not filled with malice – but their actions are cruel beyond words. 

Just
consider the impacts of the new zero tolerance policy from the perspective of
asylum seekers and migrants. Shortly after stepping on US soil, babies,
toddlers and teens are forcibly removed from their parents, sometimes in the
most deceitful and horrific ways. Stories are emerging of children being led away by US customs officials "for a bath",
with questioning parents later told they will not see their children again.
Witnesses have described how border guards not only deny information about
their children´s whereabouts, but tell the parents that they will be prosecuted
and are unwelcome. Virtually all new arrivals are deposited in adult detention
centers for "expedited removal", with most deported.

Most of the
children who are separated from their parents and families are parted for
extended periods of time. Once processed by the Department of Homeland
Security, they are shuffled through Health and Human Services and deposited in
one of the hundred or so temporary shelters set up around the US. In some cases
they are united with family members or acquaintances living in the US, assuming
they can be found.

Most often
they are not. There are reports emerging of children weeping
inconsolably, unable to explain where they come from or make sense of what has happened.
There are no adjudication procedures in place allowing parents to be put
in alternative detention centers to be reunited with their kids.

Making
matters worse, detained parents are languishing in their cells for six to eight
weeks, sometimes much longer. They are required to wait behind bars while they
wait to be awarded a "credible fear" interview, essentially an asylum
assessment. Given the hardening of US immigration policy and the limited number
of available judges in border towns, only a tiny minority eventually have the
opportunity to present their case to an immigration judge. It is rare for any
claimant to have access to paid advocates or attorneys. As a result, most
arrivals are deported instantly. Those who fight their deportation will likely
wait another six months or more for a hearing – in jail.

There are
also widespread problems with reconnecting parents and separated children after
the fact due to the chaotic way in which zero tolerance is being implemented
and enforced. The Department of Homeland Security and officials working with
Customs and Border Protection separate children from their parents, but they do
not care for them for more than a few days. The longer-term welfare support is
the jurisdiction of Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee
Resettlement and the Department of Unaccompanied Child Services. There are
fears that many children are falling between the cracks, and that family
unification is being delayed.

Make no
mistake, the US´s zero tolerance immigration strategy is not just immoral, it
is illegal. In incarcerating all new arrivals the US is sidestepping
international and national jurisprudence, including the Refugee Convention. The
use of criminal laws to deter asylum seekers is in violation of Article 31,
among others. Not surprisingly, the United Nations Commissioner for Human
Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, described the zero tolerance policy as
unconscionable. While human rights and faith based groups across the US and
around the world are mobilizing and speaking out, the damage is
lasting. This criminal policy will persist so long as ordinary people
mindlessly follow orders and stop questioning their actions.   

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