The Statue of Liberty doesn’t come with a disclaimer.
The sonnet that adorns the pedestal of perhaps the world’s best-known monument to hospitality and diversity includes the often-quoted phrases: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Look closer. You won’t find an asterisk that reads: “Some exclusions may apply.”
Indeed, our country’s citizens have often displayed an inspiring generosity to those who are suffering. We claim a long history of protecting people who flee political, religious or other persecution. Providing refuge is a cornerstone of American values – it’s a mission statement that is literally etched on our Statue of Liberty.
More recently, as our nation has started enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy toward anyone who illegally crosses the Mexican-US policy, people attempting to cross the border (either illegally or legally via the asylum process) have increasingly faced imprisonment and detention camps and parents are being separated from their children, all without enough attention to how people’s humanity can still be respected in the midst of really difficult situations.
Many of us have reacted with outrage. Others shift into blame mode. If people are breaking the law, they deserve to be punished, they say. After all, it’s “them” against “us,” right?
The more separate we all seem, the less we need to care about them.
It can be helpful to expand our view, to open our minds and to measure our judgments. It’s also helpful to understand what asylum is, why people undergo so much hardship to seek it, and why countries like America are obligated to honor it.
What is asylum? Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals, already in the US or at the border, who meet the international law definition of “refugee.” A refugee is defined by the UN 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his home country due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted due to race, religion, political opinion or other factors.
Federal and international law prevent the government from deporting people back to danger.
These families could go to a US port of entry, like a border checkpoint, and claim legal asylum.
At this point, they are supposed to be asked whether they fear persecution in their homeland and, if so, they should be automatically sent to an interview with an asylum officer. If that officer deems the immigrant’s fear to be “credible,” he begins standard immigration court proceedings to plead his case.
However, human rights groups claim that some Customs and Border Protection Officers, overwhelmed by the volume attempting to cross into the US, will turn the people away without allowing them to speak to asylum officers.
Why do people choose to cross the American-Mexican border illegally? In general, the process to obtain legal asylum is slow and glutted with a high volume of requests and, as mentioned earlier, can be thwarted many times before an immigrant ever has a chance to plead his case.
So, instead, many people attempt to cross into the US in between points of entry, which is a federal misdemeanor.
In more recent years, an increased number of illegal crossings can be traced to one of three more vulnerable populations: children or teens traveling alone from Central America, families traveling together, and/or people who want to seek asylum to flee deadly peril in their native countries.
Many of these groups come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which – due to political chaos, drug smuggling and gang warfare – are among the deadliest peacetime nations in the world.
Previously, many families caught sneaking across the border, especially asylum-seekers – were released into the United States while their immigration cases were processed. This procedure, often called “catch and release,” was most recently exercised during the “border crisis” toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, as Border Patrol agents were ordered not to prioritize arrest and detention of immigrants unless they had criminal records or had recently crossed the border.
The current administration has focused on these illegal crossings, attempting to mandate that all immigrants caught crossing into the US be kept in detention.
The most polarizing decision, however, has been to separate parents from their children at the border. The official explanation has been that this is a concession to the Flores settlement – a settlement that has created a framework of standards to protect unaccompanied alien minors from being mistreated or held for long periods in detention facilities.
But as early as March 2017, John Kelly, then-secretary of Homeland Security under the new Trump administration, stated on-camera to CNN that the practice would be used to deter families seeking asylum from traveling from Central America. This, and other statements have caused many people to question the intention behind the practice, and also to decry the impact the practice itself has on children, as the impact of family separation as a precipitator of trauma for children is well documented. (Learn more about ACEs)
Don’t families realize a zero-tolerance policy is being enforced and they might be separated from their children? Some do, but feel it is worth the peril. Even the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of whether they’ll be detained in camps or allowed into the country, the knowledge that they could be separated from their own children is worth risking because the situation in their home country is so dire. As British-Somali poet/activist Warsan Shire observed in “Home,” her famous poem on refugees: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” (Read full poem)