For at least 15 years, hard-right members of the GOP have tried but failed to pass legislation profoundly restricting immigration to the United States. Now, the Trump administration believes it has found a way to achieve this goal: Separating the children of asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants from their parents and holding them for ransom. The price? Passage of one of two bills that would sharply limit legal immigration to the United States, make the range of countries from which immigrants can obtain visas or apply for citizenship narrower and whiter, criminalize and prioritize for deportation virtually all undocumented persons now residing in the country, and further militarize U.S. borders.
Both bills could be brought to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as early as Thursday, June 21st. To force a vote, the administration has separated at least 2,300 children—ranging in age from under a year to 18 years old—from parents crossing the border. These babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, and teens are now being held hostage in detention camps across Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, and other states. The children don’t know where their parents are nor do their parents don’t know where they are. The administration admits it has no plans in place for identifying and returning these children to their parents.
In early May, the administration formalized a policy publicly discussed by administration officials for over a year and until then pursued in practice for months, mostly under-the-radar. The policy flouts both U.S. and international law on several levels.
To begin, the administration insisted that asylum seekers present themselves only at ports of entry, even though according to both U.S. and international law, a claim for asylum can be sought by anyone, irrespective of how they enter the country. Then, it reduced staffing and hours at ports of entry, making it difficult for people to actually comply with the policy. Customs and Border Patrol agents are also creating human walls preventing people—the vast majority with children—in line at ports of entry from taking a step onto U.S. soil, a step that is consequential because it gives them the right to an asylum hearing. And when those turned away from ports of entry—after waiting as many as three weeks or more outside or in overcrowded and sometimes dangerous shelters to present themselves to officials for asylum—instead cross the border through other means, they are arrested and charged as criminals with illegal entry.
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The vast majority are being denied due process for asylum claims. They are then forcibly separated from their children and prosecuted in federal court for what otherwise would be a misdemeanor for those entering the country the first time. Finally, many are being put into an expedited deportation system and sent back to their home countries without their children.
The result is calamitous, though apparently purposefully so. In what is now being widely reported as a deliberate tactic, the administration ratcheted up this policy in May to generate the crisis now faced by these children and their parents as a means of pressuring congressional GOP members to pass severe restrictions on immigration and to build Trump’s border wall. The policy does not require a legislative fix, but the administration is attempting to use it to force much deeper changes in law.
Though House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has claimed his bill, the Ryan-Trump bill, will keep families together, neither of the GOP’s so-called legislative fixes would do so nor would they advance basic human rights. Experts say that both of these bills decimate protections for unaccompanied children, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable immigrants and refugees, leave Dreamers vulnerable, and imperil thousands of unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, resulting in families being held in custody for prolonged periods including young children, and limit their access to legal protection.
The first bill is Republican Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s “Securing America’s Future Act,” (HR 4760), which contains what one analyst has called “a laundry list of enforcement provisions that [White House Senior Policy Adviser] Stephen Miller puts under his pillow each night.” Miller is well-known for his hard-line white supremacist views.
Goodlatte’s bill contains proposals that have been floated by the far right in Congress and by anti-immigrant advocacy groups for decades and have legislative roots going back at least as far as 2003 when then-Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced a bill with similar provisions. Goodlatte’s bill also mirrors provisions in a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and supported by Trump that received only 39 votes in the chamber in February. Among other things, the Goodlatte bill would:
- Eliminate entire categories of visas. The bill would eliminate visas currently allocated to U.S. citizens seeking to sponsor their parents, their adult children, and their siblings for green cards. If passed, the bill would void the applications already filed by people who have been waiting “in line” for years to receive green cards. It would also eliminate the diversity visa lottery system. Under this system, 50,000 visas are allotted each year to countries from which few people otherwise migrate to the United States. By some estimates, these changes alone would reduce future legal immigration by 40 percent and, according to the Center for American Progress‘s (CAP) Tom Jawetz and his colleague Phillip E. Wolgin, make our legal immigration system “smaller and whiter, increasing the share of Norwegians able to enter the United States, for example, while decreasing the share from places deemed ‘shithole’ countries by the president.”
- Criminalize all undocumented immigrants. Goodlatte’s bill would fundamentally alter long-standing immigration law to turn undocumented status from a civil into a criminal violation, literally turning the 11 million undocumented persons now in the country into criminals with the stroke of a pen. This, of course, then leads to accelerated deportation. It would quite literally be a legislated form of ethnic cleansing.
- Leave the majority of Dreamers unprotected. Goodlatte’s bill offers what Jawetz and his colleague Wolgin from CAP define as “only a tenuous second-class status to a small subset” of Dreamers, categorizing hundreds of thousands of others as undocumented immigrants also subject to criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and deportation.
- Eliminate asylum protections. Effectively, Goodlatte’s legislation would make Trump’s current policy into law by making it easier to deport asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, without basic due process.
- Authorizes $25 billion for a border wall. This bill provides for the authorization of $25 billion in funding for a border wall. Money to fulfill this authorization would have to be appropriated (and be available for spending) through a budget bill or other means.
Jawetz told Rewire.News, this bill risks returning children to danger or even death in their home countries by requiring all unaccompanied children be processed through expedited procedures under which toddlers are expected to represent themselves and by denying everyone seeking asylum due process. This bill would also allow unaccompanied children to be held in custody in inappropriate, overcrowded, and unsanitary adult facilities for extended periods of time.
The second bill, Ryan-Trump, also known as the ‘‘Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018,” includes many of the same provisions as the Goodlatte bill as well as other provisions widely opposed by immigration rights advocates and a range of other groups. Critics across the board have assailed Ryan for suggesting it is a “compromise.”
Both bills would “keep families together” by effectively imprisoning children and their parents in indefinitely in the same place while undermining processes for asylum and leaving their fate to the whims of the Department of Homeland Security. It also does not “solve” problems for Dreamers as Ryan has claimed. CAP’s Phillip Wolgin and Nicole Prchal Svajlenka wrote that “the Ryan bill includes a complicated points system detailing which individuals eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) can access permanent residence sooner and which recipients may have to wait years, if not decades. Because the points system is heavily weighted toward education and years of employment, the bill will disproportionately affect mothers and other caregivers, primarily women, managing or forgoing education and/or career advancement while caring for their loved ones.”
Finally, the Ryan-Trump bill, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018, includes $25 billion for Trump’s border wall in actual appropriations—and would hold immigrants’ legal status hostage to spending on the wall. Dreamers who are made eligible for legal status in the United States under this bill would have to wait until the wall is completed to have formal protections. (Ryan’s bill has been undergoing changes “by the minute,” one Democratic House staffer told Rewire.News so it is difficult to predict what the bill that is brought to the floor will contain.)
A number of groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are adamantly against both measures. In a statement, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Ryan’s bill “would hold Dreamer protections hostage for Trump’s purely political and wasteful $25 billion border wall. It would further militarize the border and make devastating changes to the Flores Agreement, which would legislate the policies that are currently separating families at the border by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to legally claim asylum, and make it easier to deport children and jail asylum seekers indefinitely. It would also make drastic cuts to family-based visas and terminate the diversity visa lottery.”
CHC Chair Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) said called Ryan’s bill a betrayal of “our most fundamental American values.”
This latest package is a reflection of the xenophobic and nativist agenda of the Trump White House, which prioritizes billions upon billions on a wasteful wall, cuts legal immigration and ends our obligation to protect vulnerable children, mothers and families lawfully seeking asylum. It is the latest example of Republicans putting Trump’s anti-immigrant demands above moral decency, families, Dreamers and the will of the American people. House Republican Leadership has done a disservice to the nation by crafting a political dog and pony show with two appalling legislative options—both hyper-partisan and both intended to fail. The antics we are witnessing are why the American people have lost faith that their Representatives can find bipartisan solutions to our nation’s most pressing issues. I will continue fighting for a truly bipartisan compromise that upholds our values and protects children, families and Dreamers.
In their statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in part that it “strongly opposes the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act” because:
Instead of putting children first by ending the harmful policy of family separation at the border once and for all, this legislation strips children of protections designed for their safety and well-being and exposes more children, not fewer, to detention, including long-term detention. Pediatricians have repeatedly spoken out against the detention of immigrant children; this legislation is not the answer and puts children at greater risk of harm.
It is not clear whether either bill can pass the House. It is almost certain neither one can pass the Senate. What is clear is that Paul Ryan and the House GOP are fully on board with a white supremacist immigration agenda that 20 years ago was considered a relatively fringe position. They are willing to pass legislation effectively sealing the fate of 11 million people now living, working, and raising families in this country and to sign the death warrants of countless others to pursue a whiter and less diverse America. What is also clear is that because neither bill is likely to make it to Trump’s desk and because the administration has shown it has absolutely no intention of ending forced separations, we may end the summer with an estimated 20,000 children—hostages of the Trump administration—separated from their parents and in detention camps.
Speaking of the current policy on MSNBC, Texas Democratic state Rep. Terry Canales said of Trump’s policy: “This is not biblical, this is diabolical.” The same can be said of these bills. They are indeed diabolical.
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