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America’s new policy toward immigrants: Kids in cages, families imprisoned

This time, thankfully, the free press that our president mocks day after day as fake gave us the chance to hear firsthand from these mothers and fathers and their children, to see for ourselves the cages the children were sent to and to hear their cries.

Lies are a lot like vicious mosquitoes. They’re difficult to swat away, annoying at best and, at worst, occasional carriers of lethal disease. Especially difficult to repel these days when each time the Trump administration addresses our immigration policy, swarms of mistruths and misstatements fill the air, distracting us with fear and distorting our sense of reality.

But in the last week, truth has scored a significant victory over falsehood. And we owe a debt of thanks to reporters like NBC’s Mariana Atencio and Jacob Soboroff for their continuing brave attempts to penetrate the Trump administration’s coordinated propaganda campaign and blackout to hide from us, the Red Cross and legal advocates the despicable dark side of their zero-tolerance policy.

The press’ determination to go to our southern border towns to the courts and detention centers, to travel to Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala to interview would-be immigrants or those deported back to their home countries has provided not only the nation but the world with clear and compelling evidence of the disastrous consequences of the Trump administration’s calculated determination to use family separation as a tool to keep brown immigrant families from gaining sanctuary.

Likewise, we owe great thanks to civil rights attorney Jennifer Harbury for publicizing the heartbreaking audio a whistleblowing client of hers recorded inside a detention center. Millions have heard the desperate voices of children wrenched from their parents.

For those of you who had never heard of Jennifer Harbury, she knows better than most Americans the dreadful toll political and civil violence wreaks on the people of Latin America. And she, more than most, appreciates the multiple reasons these families have travelled so very far in search of asylum. Her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a leader of the Mayan resistance in Guatemala, was tortured and murdered by their military. And she mounted a hunger strike to bring attention to his case.

Years later, she is helping to bring light to the plight of this new generation of the disappeared, the infants and children removed, sometimes under cover of darkness, to 13 different states, far from the comfort of their families.

Image courtesy New York Times

The administration has made a prolonged effort to deceive the American people. They have made multiple attempts to evade responsibility for a policy they clearly designed and proudly implemented. Their goal: to make it nearly impossible for immigrants to utilize the normal and legal process for seeking asylum. They have cynically mischaracterized mothers and children trying to spare their children from unbearable gang violence in Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala as dangerous members of those very gangs.

This time, thankfully, the free press that our president mocks day after day as fake gave us the chance to hear firsthand from these mothers and fathers and their children, to see for ourselves the cages the children were sent to and to hear their cries. It was the press who held up to us — forced us, in fact — to acknowledge what Trump’s 2018 America really looks like, to see our government imprison those seeking safety in what used to be the home of the brave and land of the free.

The president couldn’t — can’t — help himself. His racism is palpable, his profound dislike of Latino immigrants is so manifestly clear. But most shocking is how uncontrollable and undeniable his desire is to punish them for acting as if they too deserve a chance to join the rest of us.

Have you seen those brave women, who have journeyed so far, infest our country like roaches? Really, not my country, but his.

As TIME Magazine recounts, Attorney General Sessions was excited to announce his zero-tolerance policy and to enthusiastically warn potential immigrants: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said Monday at a law enforcement event in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” (Emphasis added.)

At the same time, the administration deliberately refused to add more border personnel at official ports of entry while quite aware that there weren’t enough personnel to handle either asylum claims or the increased caseload for criminal prosecutions for illegally crossing the border in a timely matter. No wonder many of these families waited an interminable amount of time trying to obey the rules then, in despair, attempted to cross the border illegally and to find border guards to whom they could declare their desire for asylum. No wonder so many adults pleaded guilty when told that would speed up reunification with their children.

Near McAllen, Texas, a Mission Police Department officer, left, and a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, right, stand near asylum seekers from Central America June 12 just prior to taking them into custody. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

VOX reported: “journalist Robert Moore (writing for Texas Monthly) witnessed a group of Guatemalans try to cross the bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to El Paso, Texas. They aimed to present themselves at the official US port of entry, on the other side of the bridge, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials check the papers of people entering the country. But at the top of the bridge — right where Mexican territory ends and US territory begins — the group was stopped by CBP agents and asked for identification, and then told that there wasn’t room at the port of entry to process asylum claims.”

At ports of entry like this crossing in California, The Trump administration has begun asking people for ID, saying it will allow for faster processing. Advocates, however, claim it is in order to prevent asylum seekers from obtaining U.S. legal protection. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

VOX continues: “Ultimately, three of the Guatemalans, who had proceeded a few steps into US territory, were allowed to go through to the port. But according to Moore, those who hadn’t yet set foot in US territory were blocked from doing so: Two CBP agents who had been standing a few feet from the border stepped forward and stood directly on the line. I witnessed one of the agents, whose nametag said Augustin, take a couple steps into Mexico to prevent one of the Guatemalans from crossing into the United States. CBP spokesman Maier later said port officials denied that any agent crossed into Mexico.”

As Attorney General Sessions insisted, under his policy of zero tolerance:“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple … We are dealing with a massive influx of illegal aliens across our Southwest Border. But we’re not going to stand for this.” (Emphasis added)

Chief of Staff John Kelly told NPR he strongly agreed: “Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from – fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence …The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.” (Emphasis added.)

They don’t integrate well. When have we heard such a notion?

But look at the numbers. This is a manufactured crisis:

And here is the administration’s solution to that exaggerated emergency:

According to lawmakers, immigrants in this facility were to be processed and released within three days, though they had been there for seven. Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

Brown kids in cages, sleeping on thin mats on concrete, covered by thin blankets—a Trumpian deterrence.

According to the New York Times, presidential advisor Stephen Miller doubled down on the policy and reinforced one of the president’s fallback mantras, that anything they did was better than what the Democrats would do: “’You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border,’” Mr. Miller said. “’And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55-45. 60-40. 70-30. 80-20. I’m talking 90-10 on that.’”

According to the Times, Miller noted: “The U.S. government has a sacred, solemn, inviolable obligation to enforce the laws of the United States to stop illegal immigration and to secure and protect the borders …” Asked if the images of children being taken from their parents would eventually make the president back down, Mr. Miller was adamant. ‘There is no straying from that mission,’ he said.” 

The Times continued its report: “On Monday, as Mr. Trump vowed that ‘the United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,’ he continued to falsely blame congressional Democrats for a policy driven by Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions … Echoing the president, Mr. Sessions urged lawmakers to pass legislation to build a wall along the southern border and impose new restrictions on immigration that he said would end legal ‘loopholes’ that let illegal immigrants in. ‘If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness,’ Mr. Sessions said, ‘we won’t face these terrible choices.’”

Journalists translated political rhetoric into reality:

But it wasn’t just journalists sharing what they saw. Sen. Merkley of Oregon told CNN: “He saw undocumented children in cages sleeping on thin space blankets on a concrete floor at a border processing facility. He was then barred from entering another immigrant detention center, he told CNN Monday in an interview. ‘They have big cages made out of fencing and wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out,’ Merkley told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota of the McAllen border patrol station in Texas he toured on Sunday. ‘It’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on. A space blanket is … the equivalent of foil. So obviously a very uncomfortable situation to be in.’”

Merkley’s use of the word “cage” caused great consternation — quite ironic considering that the administration made it impossible for the journalists to take their own photos or video, and that the images that quickly appeared on front pages and on television screens all came from the government. Not only was the press forbidden to enter almost all facilities, to talk to the children or adequately report, but the administration made it impossible for duly elected officials to inspect the facilities in their own Congressional districts.

Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of the Department of Homeland Security responded quickly. Her tweet starkly challenged Merkley:

When tweeting didn’t seem to work, DHS issued a press release entitled “Myth vs. Fact: DHS Zero-Tolerance Policy.” It states: “In recent days, we have seen reporters, Members of Congress, and other groups mislead the public on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) zero-tolerance policy …Myth: DHS and HHS houses migrants in ‘inhumane fenced cages’ or in an ‘ice box.’ Fact: DHS and HHS utilize short-term facilities in order to process and temporarily hold migrants that have been apprehended. These short-term facilities do not employ the use of ‘cages’ to house minors. Certain facilities make use of barriers in order to separate minors of different genders and age groups – for the safety of those who are being held.”

This time the attempt to tar the press with the charge of fake news failed miserably when the public saw and heard the evidence for themselves. We soon saw children without their parents in cages, in tents, and watched mothers tell TV reporters how their children were taken from them, often without warning or without the opportunity to explain to their children what was about to happen to them.

Jacob Soboroff described his experience in Vanity Fair: “The McAllen Border Patrol facility is the first place kids and their families caught crossing the border illegally in the area are brought by Border Patrol. It’s where they are booked. It’s a massive facility: 77,000 square feet, with 55,000 dedicated specifically to families and unaccompanied kids. The idea is to get them out of there within 72 hours, either to ICE family detention or to an H.H.S. shelter like the one I saw in Brownsville … in addition to the minors who had entered the U.S. alone illegally for years, there was a new group of tenants at the Border Patrol’s center: so-called ‘tender age’ children, including babies, who were taken away from their parents as they were carted off and charged with the federal misdemeanor of entering the United States illegally. Many of those parents had arrived seeking asylum from violence in a Central American country.

“The whole tour was shocking, and by now you’ve likely seen the handout images from the government: the mylar blankets, the mattresses on the concrete floors, and the cages. That’s what they were: cages. But there’s something you didn’t see. It wasn’t in the handout photos or the video of us getting led around. It was something I’ll never forget.

“Border Patrol later told me it was a play area. Really, it was a cage filled with what I remember being at least a dozen young kids, some of whom had been separated from their parents. Some were sitting on the floor and some were standing, and they were being supervised by a contracted guard at the center of the cage in a watchtower. Four social workers waited outside in case they were needed. I was looking at caged kids. Ripped from their parents. In the United States of America.”

Then the Harbury audio presented the cries of the children suddenly transported to a world without parents. We could hear the pleas of children asking for help from shelter personnel to contact their relatives. Suzanne Gamboa of NBC reports: “It’s clear in the audio the children are distressed. ‘Can I go with my aunt at least?’ asks a young girl who tells officials she’s memorized her aunt’s number. ‘I want her to come.’ The other child continues to cry ‘Papá, papá.’ A woman in the audio says the girl hasn’t eaten because she wants to first talk to her aunt. ‘My mommy says they’ll bring my aunt as soon as possible, so I can go with her,’ she said. The children’s cries elicit a response from a border agent: ‘Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.’” If you haven’t heard this, here it is:


Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter offer a comprehensive analysis and timeline of the changes in U.S. policy for Policy Beat: “Frustrated by evidence of recent upticks in migrant apprehensions at the U.S. Southwest border—and by the imagery of a caravan of Central Americans making their way north—the Trump administration recently unveiled dramatic policy changes to stem the flows. These include a de facto policy of separating families apprehended between ports of entry, possibly housing the children on military bases, as well as changing the definition of who qualifies as an unaccompanied minor. The administration also announced that all those apprehended crossing the border illegally will be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry or re-entry.”

Yet: “Apprehensions in FY 2017 fell to just under 304,000, the lowest point since 1971—and a far cry from the peak of 1.6 million in FY 2000. In recent months, apprehensions have begun to rise slightly again, indicating that they may be returning to the 330,000 to 480,000 level seen in FY 2010 through 2016.”

“On April 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would prosecute everyone U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehends crossing the border illegally, without exception. Under this zero-tolerance policy, adults apprehended between ports of entry will be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), tried in criminal court for the misdemeanor of illegal entry and/or the felony of illegal re-entry, sent to federal jail or prison to serve their sentence, and then handed back to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be removed from the country … In April 2017, Sessions issued a memo instructing federal prosecutors to prioritize immigration crimes.”

Photo: Ben Hillman and Lee Harrison

Why are children taken from their parents? Chishti and Bolter explain the ramifications of this zero-tolerance policy: “Family Separation: Because immigrant children apprehended at the border cannot legally be held in federal criminal detention facilities, they will inevitably be separated from their parents when the adults are criminally prosecuted. Children will be referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that handles unaccompanied minors, and will be treated as though they arrived on their own. ORR will release them to an adult sponsor in the United States (a relative or family friend) if one is available, and if not, to a foster family; otherwise, the children will be held in an ORR shelter.” (Emphasis added.)

All this is complicated by recent court decisions: “The 1997 Flores v. Reno court settlement, which remains in effect, requires the government to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay to, in order of preference, parents, other adult relatives, or licensed programs willing to accept custody. If children cannot be released, Flores requires the government to hold them in the “least restrictive” setting available. The 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) codified parts of the settlement into federal law.

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District Court in California ruled that the Flores requirements apply to both unaccompanied minors and children apprehended with their parents, meaning that all minors must be released from detention if possible. Gee also ordered DHS to release parents detained along with their children. An appeals court in 2016 affirmed that Flores applied to all children, but reversed the ruling that parents should be released as well.”

So where are we now?

Faced by an enormous barrage of bad publicity, the administration slammed on its brakes, pretended its policy of family separation wasn’t its policy and has tried desperately to convince people it cares about immigrant children. Where once he mightily insisted an executive order couldn’t change their zero-tolerance policy, the president invited the television cameras to witness the issuance of an executive order.

While many imagine this executive order as a victory, it opens the door for the expansion of brown kids in cages to brown families in prison. Read carefully:

“(c) The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary, upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessaryand consistent with law.  The Secretary, to the extent permitted by law, shall be responsible for reimbursement for the use of these facilities.

(d)  Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes. The Secretary, to the extent permitted by law, shall be responsible for reimbursement for the use of these facilities.

(e)  The Attorney General shall promptly file a request with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to modify the Settlement Agreement in Flores v. Sessions, CV 85-4544 (“Flores settlement”), in a manner that would permit the Secretary, under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.

Sec4.  Prioritization of Immigration Proceedings Involving Alien Families. The Attorney General shall, to the extent practicable, prioritize the adjudication of cases involving detained families.” (Emphasis added.)

They are not willing to abandon their agenda. Here’s an idea what immigrants still face. Attorney General Sessions has used his extensive authority to make it far more difficult for those victims of gang violence and domestic violence from utilizing these realities to make a claim for asylum. Here’s his recent determination: “Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 338 (BIA 2014) is overruled. That decision was wrongly decided and should not have been issued as a precedential decision.”

Sessions wrote: “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum. While I do not decide that violence inflicted by non-governmental actors may never serve as the basis for an asylum or withholding application based on membership in a particular social group, in practice such claims are unlikely to satisfy the statutory grounds for proving group persecution that the government is unable or unwilling to address. The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes—such as domestic violence or gang violence—or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.” (Emphasis added.)

Their policies under enormous attack by the press and under legal challenge by the ACLU and a small army of volunteer attorneys and now opposed by much of the public, the President Trump, Attorney General Sessions, and Secretary Nielsen have waged a continuous propaganda campaign. They continuously conflate a group of parents so desperate to save their children they will endure enormous hardship, pain, even separation with illegal criminal immigrants. But we are witnessing not immigration by choice but emigration by necessity.

Access is still denied to the press and many politicians. Here are several revelatory tweets:

Enjoy for a moment the accomplishments of our free press in bringing light to darkness. But prepare yourselves for the next advance against these immigrant families. Thanks to TIME Magazine’s Philip Elliot and W.J. Hennigan and a leaker at the Navy, we learned about this disturbing vision for the near future:

“The U.S. Navy is preparing plans to construct sprawling detention centers for tens of thousands of immigrants on remote bases in California, Alabama and Arizona, escalating the military’s task in implementing President Donald Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy for people caught crossing the Southern border, according to a copy of a draft memo obtained by TIME.

“The internal document, drafted for the Navy Secretary’s approval, signals how the military is anticipating its role in Trump’s immigration crackdown. The planning document indicates a potential growing military responsibility in an administration caught flat-footed in having to house waves of migrants awaiting civilian criminal proceedings.

“The Navy memo outlines plans to build ‘temporary and austere’ tent cities to house 25,000 migrants at abandoned airfields just outside the Florida panhandle near Mobile, Alabama, at Navy Outlying Field Wolf in Orange Beach, Alabama, and nearby Navy Outlying Field Silverhill.

“The memo also proposes a camp for as many as 47,000 people at former Naval Weapons Station Concord, near San Francisco; and another facility that could house as many as 47,000 people at Camp Pendleton, the Marines’ largest training facility located along the Southern California coast. The planning memo proposes further study of housing an undetermined number of migrants at the Marine Corps Air Station near Yuma, Arizona.” (Emphasis added.)

Multiply what we see in the present many times with many, many more tents because the president and his advisors and cabinet officers are determined to preserve their notion of America: white and prosperous for the few. If you believe in a multicultural America, there will be many fights ahead.

The front page of the website for the Department of Homeland Security is pretty clear about the agenda:

But remember there are many who care:



“Merkley: Migrant Kids Are Kept In Cages On Concrete Floor At TX Border Station”
Kate Riga, June 4, 2018, Talking Points Memo

“Myth vs. Fact: DHS Zero Tolerance Policy”
June 18, 2018

“Kids in Cages and Other Scenes from Trump’s Zero Tolerance”
Jacob Soboroff, June 22, 2018, Vanity Fair

YouTube video of audio provided by Jennifer Harbury

“U.S. Lawyer on Hunger Strike for Lost Guerrilla Spouse: Guatemala: Jennifer Harbury says she’ll starve herself to death unless the army owns up to what she sees as a 2 1/2-year record of deceit. She insists he is a prisoner of war and has been mercilessly tortured.”
George Gedda, Oct. 30, 1994, Associated Press

“Children cry for their parents on audio of Trump’s border family”
Suzanne Gamboa, June.18, 2018, NBC News

“Jeff Sessions: Parents and Children Illegally Crossing the Border Will Be Separated”
Aric Jenkins, May 7, 2018, TIME Magazine

“Trump keeps making it harder for people to seek asylum legally”
Dara Lind, June 5, 2018

“John Kelly: It’s not ‘cruel’ to separate families at the border — children will be ‘put into foster care or whatever’”
Michelle Mark, May 11, 2018, Business Insider

Transcript: White House Chief Of Staff John Kelly’s Interview With NPR
May 11, 2018

“How Anti-Immigration Passion Was Inflamed From the Fringe”
Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner, June 18, 2018, New York Times

“Family Separation and ‘Zero-Tolerance’ Policies Rolled Out to Stem Unwanted Migrants, But May Face Challenges”
Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, May 24, 2018, Policy Beat

“Why Are Parents Bringing Their Children on Treacherous Treks to the U.S. Border?”
Julie Turkewitz and Jose A. Del Real, June 22, 2018, New York Times

Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation
Executive Order: Immigration
June 20, 2018

“Exclusive: Navy Document Shows Plan to Erect ‘Austere’ Detention Camps”
Philip Elliot and W.J.Hennigan, June 22, 2018, TIME Magazine



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