The former acting head of U.S. immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) under the Obama administration says President Donald Trump’s new zero-tolerance policy that separates families seeking to claim asylum does nothing to secure America’s borders.
“What you’re seeing now is an intentional and systemic approach to separating parents from their children in order to try to deter additional people from Central America from coming,” John Sandweg said.
The zero-tolerance policy means that adults who have entered the U.S. illegally – usually to seek asylum – are being charged criminally. While they are going through the system, their children are taken and put in detention facilities.
But when asked if the policy will actually work – if the threat of being separated from their children will stop people from coming – Sandweg said no.
“There’s very little that we in the United States can do to deter people who are fleeing this horrific violence in Central America to stop them trying to come here,” Sandweg explained.
“There’s so little that we can do that’s worse than what they are facing [in Central America.]”
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Child immigration advocates say the same.
“When we talk to kids and families they tell us ‘I will die if I stay in my country and I may die if I make the journey,’” Jennifer Podkul from Kids in Need of Defense told Global News.
“When you’re facing odds like that you’re going to continue taking risks even if it means being taken away from your children because at least your children will be alive.”
The act of separating the children from their families has been called inhumane. The detention facilities appear to be cages where children sleep in rows on mats on the floor, according to pictures provided by U.S. border officials.
Opposition to the policy is bi-partisan, but Trump and his cabinet have defended the policy, saying the law must be upheld.
Losing track of kids and permanent separations
When the children are put into detention facilities, they are put into the care of Health and Human Services (HHS) – but the adults are put into the care of ICE.
Before the policy was in place, there was already over 1,500 undocumented children who had been lost track of.
Now that there’s another 2,000 children in the care of HHS, Sandweg isn’t optimistic about their chances.
“If the administration doesn’t reunify these children very quickly, which is logistically very hard to do, you’re going to have a lot of permanent separations,” Sandweg said.
He explained that the children and adults are put into separate legal systems that move at drastically different paces.
“The parents can be sent back very quickly to Central America, whereas the kids are staying in the United States for years while they’re going through the immigration process,” he explained.
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Did the U.S. do this before?
At a speech for the National Federation of Independent Business’s 75th anniversary celebration on Tuesday, Trump said there were only two options: Separating migrant children from their parents at the border or “open borders.”
He said he was asking Congress to come up with a third option that would keep families together.
But Sandweg said the previous directive included keeping families together.
“It happened very rarely under the prior administration, our overall policy was to keep families unified,” Sandweg explained.
“One of the problems we face is where parents would intentionally separate themselves from their children before they got to the border. In those cases alone it’s very challenging to reunify the parents and the children.
“Why this administration would intentionally adopt a policy to increase that problem is beyond me.”
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“I think the other thing that scares me … is I’m not seeing any signs that this was a planned policy change,” Sandweg said.
“You know typically in the U.S. government when we would enact a major policy we’d have an intense amount of meetings looking at budgeting issues, logistics, some of the boring things that are critical to executing a policy smoothly.”
U.S. attorney Jeff Sessions announced the policy six-weeks ago, saying “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
Sessions also said more immigration prosecutors and judges were headed to the border to help with an influx of charges.
There was no mention of more help for the children who were pulled from their parents.
“I’m seeing very little signs that this was planned in any sort of way, and I think that’s being reflected by these horrific detention facilities that are sprung up in abandoned Walmarts, where they’re housing kids,” Sandweg said.
“I think they’re making it up as they go along. I think they’re hoping it will further their policy goals, which is to really deter asylum seekers,” Podkul agreed.
*With files from Jackson Proskow