Senate Democrats announced legislation Friday to prevent authorities from separating children from their parents at the border, in a move that would likely punch a hole in the middle of the Trump administration’s new zero tolerance border policy.
Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the bill is the first major concrete effort to try to push back against the zero tolerance policy.
“The United States must not be a country that traumatizes young children by separating them from their parents,” the California Democrat said.
The new zero tolerance policy doesn’t require separation of children from parents, but it does push prosecutors to file criminal charges against illegal immigrants who jump the border — ramping up a tactic that had been used relatively less often by previous administrations.
Once those charges are filed against adults, though, they are taken to jail — and any children they brought with them are separated and put in the custody of social workers at the federal Health Department.
That’s the separation Democrats say they want to end.
Homeland Security says it’s a misguided attempt.
“We don’t have a policy of separating families. If you commit a crime in this country, the police will take you to jail regardless if you have a family or not,” said department spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton. “Illegal aliens should not get preferential treatment because they happen to be illegal aliens.”
Banning separation could effectively end the zero tolerance policy for parents, making it impossible to charge them with crimes, some analysts said — effectively creating a loophole in the immigration system for adults who drag children to the border with them.
Mrs. Feinstein’s office didn’t respond to a request about that loophole.
Even the Obama administration, which took a much more lenient view of illegal immigration, argued against creating incentives for illegal immigrants to bring children with them. Not only do they face a harrowing journey, but some migrants and smuggling organizations have been found to abduct children in order to pretend to be families when they reach the border, the Obama administration said.
Hundreds of children have had to be taken from purported parents at the border this year either because of abuse or smuggling allegations.
Mrs. Feinstein’s bill would still allow for separation in those cases.
Some of the migrants being snared in the zero tolerance policy say they are trying to seek asylum, and advocates argue that putting them in criminal proceedings may violate U.S. treaty obligations.
The Trump administration says it is only prosecuting people who try to jump the border. Officials say if migrants want to seek asylum they should show up at the regular ports of entry, as many of the participants in this spring’s illegal immigrant caravan did.
More than 90 percent of those caravan participants who made asylum claims passed their initial screening.
When children are separated from parents, they’re sent to dorms run by social workers contracted by the federal government.
Some Democrats have criticized the conditions the children face — though they may be conflating that with children being held by the Border Patrol for the first few days after they are arrested.
Those border facilities, generally designed in an earlier era when migrants were mainly Mexican men who would be processed and quickly shipped back across the border, don’t seem cut out for the new surge of children and families, most from Central America, who make up about 40 percent of the Border Patrol’s apprehensions.
Some of those border facilities are called “ice boxes” by migrants because of the cold, and people are often left with nothing other than a foil blanket to sleep with.
But the dorms run by the Health Department are cushy. Under the rules they are required to feed children until they are full, including continuous snacks, and the children get full medical care, art classes and trips to amusement parks and bowling. One shelter provides “multicultural crayons” for the children to use in their art projects, while another says it makes sure it has a good cable television package so kids can keep up with their sports teams from back home.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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