I think we all have breathed a sigh of relief at the reversal of the policy of separating children and their parents at the border and in effect locking up the children. This is a deeply moral and thus relatively easy question.
But there remain more complex policy questions, assuming we accept that the United States can have a border, and not allow anyone in the world to move here by their own unilateral choice. Then we must distinguish, among those coming across the border, between genuine refugees/asylum seekers and would-be immigrants.
Under both U.S. and international law, to gain asylum you must show you have a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Refugees are entitled to stay. Would-be immigrants, who may have very good reasons to want to come to the United States, such as more economic opportunity or a more attractive political system than in their own countries, can come to the United States only if they go through a complex process, starting in their home countries, to obtain an immigrant visa.
I think we can assume that some, but not all ,of the people being intercepted at the border are refugees. The determination in each case is by an immigration judge.
So, first policy question: What should we do with those who are caught at/near the border until their cases are heard? Don’t separate children and parents. But, also, let’s not lock up the parents/children together in a “non-prison” detention facility. In effect, they are the immigration equivalent of people who have been arrested for some crime and are awaiting trial. For both humanitarian and financial reasons, we try not to lock them up unless necessary. Many pre-trial detainees are released on bail or on their own promise to show up for trial, but these people usually have strong community ties. The people picked up at the border mostly do not and, if they are simply released, they will very likely not come back. But we have intermediate sanctions. What if these people — at least those with children — were released with monitoring ankle bracelets and ordered to report in on a frequent basis? Hopefully many of the social service and social justice organizations that have led the protests against separation will help in finding “non-incarcerated” housing for them.
Second, the immigration court trials need to be both prompt and fair (recognizing the tension between the two). We need more judges, appropriately trained. And we need interpreters and legal advocates to help these people navigate an inevitably complex, strange and often terrifying US court system. Hopefully the court will then do a better — if never perfect — job of separating the genuine refugees from the “economic immigrants.”
Finally, we must recognize that the U.S., like every country, has the right to deport the undocumented “immigrants” (presumably taking their children back with them). Our immigration system is imperfect, but these people should not be able to “jump the queue” of legal immigration by crossing illegally.
Mary Coombs lives in Ashland.