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There are Three Crises at the Border: Keeping it Straight

There are (at least) three crises at the Border right now. As advocates, we must know how to speak clearly and effectively about each one.

1. Crisis One: Unaccompanied children are being held in mass detention facilities.

Most of the headlines about “camps” are referring to the housing of unaccompanied children. These children arrived at the border without a parent. Some came with another relative, and U.S. law requires that they be separated from that relative when they arrive, in order to protect children who are being trafficked. This separation makes them “unaccompanied,” even when they made the journey with a family member.

These are not the same as the children who are being separated from their parents at the border. That’s another, parallel crisis.

A U.S. court decision (called the Flores Agreement) requires that children be kept in safe and sanitary conditions, and that they also be moved quickly from Border Patrol’s custody into the care of an agency that is better suited to care for children (the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement). It also limits the amount of time that a child can be held in detention.

The reports that emerged this week show that this court decision is being violated: kids are being held for too long in Border Patrol facilities that are not appropriate for them -- and held without food, water, medical care, sanitation, or adequate space.

Some kids have been transferred, per our existing policies, from Border Patrol to Department of Health and Human Services’ custody. But those facilities have not been safe and age-appropriate and instead have been mass detention camps. One example is the tent city in Tornillo, Texas, that housed thousands of children before it was shut down in the face of vehement criticism

How to advocate in response: We must call for swift action in Congress that requires accountability and oversight of all migrant facilities, especially those where children are being held. Resources must be allocated to attend to children’s needs appropriately. And swift action must be taken so that unaccompanied children who have a relative or a guardian in the U.S. can be released into their care instead of being incarcerated.

2. Crisis Two: Families are still being separated, and not being reunited.

Though there was a court decision to stop the family separations that were publicly announced in April 2018, reports show they still have not stopped. The injunction that halted the policy last June allowed for some separations to continue, for example in cases where their parents have criminal histories or communicable diseases. Reports point to over 700 families that have fallen into this category since the June injunction -- with many advocates concerned that the government definition of “criminal history” is far too broad.

Parents who have been deported and whose kids have remained in the U.S., have been getting very little help from the U.S. government to be reunited with their children. In some cases, the government simply did not keep paperwork that could identify who a child is and where their parents might be.

How to advocate in response: We must advocate for the parents who have been deported to be located and reunited with their children. We must work so that all children who have been separated from their parents are identified and swiftly reunited with their parents. We must call on Congress to provide oversight so that we can ensure family separation happens only in extreme cases, and with the utmost care for the children who are being harmed by the process.

3. Crisis three: It’s becoming impossible to claim asylum.

Fewer and fewer people have the chance to claim asylum now. One reason is a newly implemented practice called “metering.” It is meant to limit the number of asylum seekers permitted to cross the border each day. The intention is to slow the process down, and force a long enough wait, that people will give up and return to their home countries. Wait times are creeping into the months, and reports indicate that the number of those waiting are in the tens of thousands. 

Asylum-seekers are also now being forced to remain in Mexico while they await U.S. immigration court hearings. Under the program, those who pass their first interview -- showing that their fears of persecution are likely to be real -- are sent back to Mexico with a court date that is weeks or months in the future. There, asylum seekers have little access to legal counsel and are increasingly vulnerable to violence and exploitation as they wait in Mexican border cities. Shelters to house them -- many of which are being created ad-hoc by churches -- are also facing overcrowding, malnourishment, and health care crises.

The administration is also working to have Mexico deemed a safe country to claim asylum. If this happens, it would require those traveling from Central America to make their asylum claim in the first safe country they reached on their journey: Mexico. They would not be allowed to claim asylum in the U.S. But Mexico has struggled to uphold as asylum system that is safe and fair, leading advocates to worry that such an agreement is meant solely to prevent migration to the U.S. and not to uphold the U.S. commitment to protect those who are being persecuted.

How to advocate in response: We must advocate for Congress to force an end to the Remain in Mexico policy and allow asylum seekers to enter the U.S. We must divert from the incarceration of asylum seekers, and re-enact our longstanding practice of alternatives to detention which save money and are far more humane. And we must raise awareness about metering so that there is pressure on the Administration to end this practice.


Photo by Romel Jacinto on Flickr

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