When a desperate family fleeing violence in their homeland arrives at the border, what kind of heartless and inhumane nation would separate the parents from the children, prosecute the parents for crossing into the country illegally and send the kids off to a youth detention center?
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions revealed Monday that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have agreed to take a zero-tolerance approach to people who cross into the U.S. along the southwestern border outside an official point of entry. Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, will refer every adult entrant to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, while children (even mere infants or toddlers) will be held separately without charge — but left to their own devices to seek asylum or otherwise avoid deportation.
In a prepared speech to state law enforcement officials, Sessions said, "If you cross this 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 will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
Leave it to Sessions to describe parents seeking to migrate with their families as child smugglers.
It is technically a crime to enter the United States outside official points of entry. But under international treaties that the United States has signed, people fleeing their home countries can legally enter a country and ask for asylum anywhere. That's why so many of the people "apprehended" by the Border Patrol have actually sought out the agents and turned themselves in. Prosecuting those migrants would violate international law.
Granted, most of those crossing the border illegally are not families seeking refuge. But lawlessness, intimidation and over-the-top violence in parts of Central America are changing the composition of border-crossers, decreasing the share of solo men searching for work in favor of families searching for safety.
In his speech, Sessions claimed that the U.S. was seeing a "massive influx of illegal aliens along our southwest border," adding: "We are not going to let this country be invaded. We will not be stampeded." In fact, the number of people detained at the border is still far, far below the level prior to the last recession, and remains near last year's unusually low rate. It has risen in recent months in keeping with seasonal patterns.
The new policy is not just cruel and in violation of our treaty obligations toward asylum seekers, it's unworkable. The number of court cases would increase roughly 500% without a commensurate increase in judges, prosecutors or lock-ups.
The Obama administration had a far more affordable and humane solution, which was to have asylum seekers monitored by case managers but not detained. The Trump administration abandoned that approach and is now trying to deter families from entering the country by promising to break them up. That's just an excuse for making their situation more desperate than it already is, and we shouldn't stand for it.