It was back in April that Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a convention of southern border sheriffs gathered in Las Cruces, NM, that from then on, the United States had “a zero tolerance policy toward illegal entry across our borders. Our goal,” he said, “is to prosecute every case that is brought to us. There must be consequences for illegal actions, and I am confident …that will deter thousands of illegal aliens.”
Well, the consequences have been dramatic, but, so far at least, there is no sign the hoped-for deterrence is happening.
The most controversial consequence has been an enormous rise in the numbers of children separated from their families for illegally crossing the border into the United States.
The magnitude of the spike in families torn asunder was confirmed by the reporting of our guest today, Mica Rosenberg of the Reuters news agency. According to statistics passed to Mica by an anonymous “senior government official,” over 17 months – from October 2016 through February of this year, 1768 families were separated after apprehension by Federal authorities. That covers the last 3 months of the Obama Presidency and the transition to the first 14 months of Donald Trump’s Presidency.
Over that period, the average number of family separations was 104 per month, almost all of them predicated on a medical issue on the part of a parent or child or suspicion that one of the parents had a prior criminal record.
The senior official said he could not supply statistics later than February, but he did say, there had been a notable rise since the Trump Administration started toughening up its immigration policies. I’ll say!
“According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who testified last month to Congress,” Rosenberg reported, in 2 weeks, “between May 6 and May 19, 658 children were separated from 638 parents because of the stepped-up prosecutions.”
Quite a quantum leap, that: from a 17-month average of 106 family separations a month to 638 in 2 weeks. No statistics have been supplied for March and April, or the parts of May and June outside the May 6-19 window, but if the numbers supplied to Congress are typical, family separations have grown by a magnitude of 10 or more.
By the way, in several of his pronouncements about his zero tolerance policy, Attorney General Sessions and Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the policy protected children, because of the numbers of children being trafficked to the United States by people who only pretended to be their parents.
Well, here are the numbers. The Customs and Border Protection statistics for October 2016 through February 2018 showed 237 arrests for suspected child trafficking. which accounts for about one in 8 of children separated from their parents over that period.
Put another way, those 237 arrests represented one suspected trafficked child for every 500 border-crossing families arrested. A problem, but perhaps not the big problem the Attorney General suggested.
Finally, of course, there is the rationale for the harshness of zero tolerance…its deterrent effect. Figures for most of 2018 show the number of people either being apprehended or turning themselves in to ask for asylum after illegally crossing the border is right where it was before Donald Trump took office. A fact that sent the President into an embarrassing Cabinet meeting hissy fit at his Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The reason for that is obvious, the push of terrible living conditions in places like El Salvador and Honduras is stronger than our strong-arm tactics to de-magnetize the pull of the chance at a better life in America.
Mica Rosenberg is a New York-based reporter for the Reuters news agency, currently specializing in immigration issues. She also spent 4 years covering criminal justice issues for Reuters, and following more than 5 years reporting for Reuters from Latin America, Mica was awarded a Knight Bagehot Fellowship for Business Journalism.