Washington Wednesday: Immigration

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 6th day of June, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: I’m Kent Covington. And today is Washington Wednesday.

Throughout his campaign for the Oval Office and ever since, President Trump has made halting illegal immigration a cornerstone of his agenda at home. Speaking to reporters at the White House back in April, the president said:

TRUMP: We have immigration laws that are laughed at by everybody, and it’s gotta be changed. We need the wall. We need the protection, and we have to change our immigration laws at the border and elsewhere.

The president thus far has been unable to talk lawmakers into funding his promised border wall or reforming the nation’s immigration system. But the administration has done plenty on its own.

In early April the Department of Justice announced a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal crossings at the Southwest border. And at a May 7th news conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared:

SESSIONS: The Department of security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution, and the Department of Justice will take up these cases. 

Sessions said to help handle the case load, he sent 35 prosecutors and 18 immigration judges to the border. Since that announcement, criminal prosecutions of people apprehended near the border jumped 30 percent from March to April. Sessions said the U.S. is looking to send a message:

SESSIONS: If you cross between the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you as required by law.

That means many immigrant children are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, while their parents or other families members are detained and prosecuted.

On Capitol Hill last month, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California demanded answers. She grilled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about the policy.

HARRIS: What purpose have you been given for separating parents from their children? NIELSEN: So my decision has been that anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted. If you’re a parent or you’re a single person or if you happen to have a family, if you cross the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law. 

While Nielsen said it’s simply a matter of law and order, Vice President Mike Pence said there’s more to it. He said tougher border policies will not only help reduce illegal immigration, but they’ll also help deter immigrants from attempting the highly dangerous journey to the U.S. border.

PENCE: It’s important, as I said earlier today, to recognize that the people that come, often through great peril to try and come into our country, either by applying for access at our border or by coming into the country illegally, are often victims themselves, exploited by human traffickers. 

Deterring immigrants from trekking to the border, he says, is in everyone’s best interest. But many say separating children from their families is a step too far—particularly for migrants using the legal asylum process.

On Friday, a group of evangelical leaders sent a letter to President Trump voicing concern over the zero tolerance policy. Among the signatories is World Relief President Scott Arbeiter. He wrote—his words—“I’m deeply troubled that as families fleeing persecution reach our border, children are being separated from their parents.” He added that he prays the president will “do all he can to reverse these policies as well as to ensure that the U-S. refugee resettlement program continues to allow vulnerable, persecuted families to be carefully vetted abroad and then rebuild their lives in the U.S.”

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization at World Relief, and he joins us on the phone. He is also national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and he is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger, and Seeking Refuge.

And Matt, first of all, just summarize for us, if you would, what’s happening at the border. Under what circumstances are children being separated from their families and what does that look like?

MATT SOERENS, GUEST: So under U.S. law, if someone has a well-founded fear of persecution and they can get to the United States, they have the right to request asylum. So we’ve had a number of families, sometimes individuals as well, but especially families coming through—particularly from Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—for a number of years, but the numbers have increased over time. And usually what happens under past administrations and until this point under this administration would be that if someone requests asylum, they are — that is processed. They may be detained for awhile, but eventually they’re called to an asylum hearing and it’s determined if they really do have a well-founded fear of persecution, that would qualify them under the law.

What’s happened with this new zero tolerance policy that Attorney General Sessions announced about a month ago now is that when parents show up with children, they are being charged criminally if they show up without a visa at the U.S.-Mexico border, charged for unlawful entry, which can be a misdemeanor offense, but in past administrations it would be very unusual to charge people criminally when they’re seeking asylum, especially when they have children present. The federal government can charge people for that offense, but they don’t have to – in the past, they’ve used discretion so that families could be kept together. But now that they are charging people, what happens to those children is they’re reclassified as unaccompanied minors and then under the terms of U.S. law, they’re put into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

And we’re very concerned as, I think, Scott’s quote alluded to just on the effect of this policy on children for whom being separated from their mom, their dad really could be a traumatic experience that could harm them for longer than just a short-term of time.

Okay, so clear up some confusion here if you would. On the one hand, we hear that immigrants from certain places are legally allowed to make an asylum claim at the border, but by doing so, they’re technically breaking the law and charged?

SOERENS: Well, so, federal law basically says that you can apply for asylum at any point that you reach the border regardless of your mode of entry. The law allows you to apply if you show up at the border in between border crossing points. It’s also possible to go up to a port of entry and request asylum. It’s also possible and common for those who have this available to them, to come in on a tourist visa or some other form of temporary visa and request asylum that way.

But I do think it’s important to note that there are individuals who don’t meet the requirements for asylum, who aren’t fleeing persecution, they’re fleeing poverty or something else. But for those seeking asylum, the most typical situation is they’re looking for border patrol agents. They’re not trying to evade law enforcement. They know that they’re there to apply for asylum and that that means interacting with the U.S. government. So this isn’t a situation of people trying to sneak into the country.

So is everyone who makes an asylum claim at the border being arrested and charged?

SOERENS: No, it’s anyone caught, they would view as making an unlawful entry. So, showing up at a border that’s not a formal border crossing point. So it’s not just those who — I mean, they could be eventually granted their asylum claim, but they’ll still have been charged criminally on the misdemeanor charges of improper entry. And their children, in the meantime, will have been taken from them.

Okay, so what happens when children are separated from their family? Where do they go, and how does that work?

SOERENS: Yeah, so the Department of Homeland Security turns over those children to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is basically responsible for protecting them and making sure that they’re provided for. Usually that means being turned over to some sort of nonprofit that runs some sort of a temporary shelter for those kids, in most cases, until they can be released to a sponsor, which may be a family member already in the United States or, in some cases, it’s a foster family. Or in some cases if the parents plead guilty to the misdemeanor, unlawful entry charge and give up their claim to asylum, which some might do under a feeling of duress and desperation to be back with their kids, they might be able to be reunited with their parents more quickly. But if they have a pending asylum charge, the Department of Homeland Security may keep them in a detention facility, in some cases, for months while those cases can be processed. So it can be a long family separation.

Now, Vice President Pence, as we noted, has made the argument that while the zero tolerance policy may seem to some to be devoid of compassion, that really, it is compassionate to deter people from trekking to the border, because it is such a dangerous and perilous journey. Does he have a point there?  

SOERENS: You know, I think that would be the case if these were people coming out of some sort of minor inconvenience or just wanting, generically, a better life, but if people are fleeing the threat of death, this won’t deter them. And I think at least in a preliminary basis from the numbers we’ve seen for May so far there’s not evidence that this is deterring people from making the trip.

Matt as people show up at the border fleeing desperate situations—some who get to stay and some who don’t—what can the church do to help? How should the church respond to the needs we see here?

SOERENS: Yeah, at World Relief we’re passionate about the local church. In fact, our mission is to empower the church to serve the most vulnerable.

The government has its role, and we can be part of advocating in one way or another, but I want to make sure the church doesn’t miss its role, which is really clear in the Bible to love our neighbors, to make disciples of all nations, and I think of the arrivals of the immigrants and refugees as a unique opportunity God has given us to do that.

And one way that we do that at World Relief, we are very active in welcoming refugees. Even though the numbers are down, there are still refugees arriving. We’ve worked with actually more than 1,000 churches in the last few years, helped refugee families integrate into communities, and we have lots of people coming forward and saying, “How do we advocate for refugees?

And that’s been really encouraging for me because I think it’d be a unique opportunity for us to live out what Jesus calls us to do and the process is to see some people who are already brothers and sisters in Christ be welcomed and others who are not yet Christians, they can experience the love of Christ and maybe be drawn to him.

Matt, thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it!

SOERENS: Yeah, I really appreciate it, Kent. Thanks so much. I appreciate the good work y’all do.

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File) In this June 22, 2016 file photo, Border Patrol agents stands near a border structure in San Diego. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has begun testing body-worn cameras on its employees at nine locations, potentially leading to a broad rollout that would make it the first federal law enforcement agency to use them on a large scale. 

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