The Trump administration is continuing its incoherent attempts to spin news surrounding the nearly 2,000 children who, in the span of less than two months, have been separated from their parents at the border.
Over the past several days, administration officials have flip-flopped from flat-out denying that the family separation policy exists, to falsely blaming it on a Democratic law and claiming they have no choice but to enforce it, to using the Bible as justification for it, to arguing that the policy is necessary for security reasons.
On Sunday, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen blamed the press, advocacy groups, and members of Congress for spreading misinformation about the policy.
“As I have said many times before, if you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry,” Nielsen said on Twitter. She continued in a thread, “You are not breaking the law by seeking asylum at a port of entry,” closing with, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between 'family' members, or if the adult has broken a law.
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) June 17, 2018
We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) June 17, 2018
On Monday, she publicly defended the policy she claimed didn’t exist, and again stressed the need to go through an official port of entry to claim asylum, as did Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Her suggestion that families should come through ports of entry in order to avoid breaking the law, as well as her apparent ignorance of a policy her own administration helped create, is a frightening indication of the nonchalance with which President Donald Trump and his administration are willing to spread lies about a brutal practice that has harmed thousands.
What’s lost in much of the conversation surrounding family separations is the difficulties that many immigrants face throughout the asylum process, from choosing to leave their homelands, to avoiding ports of entry, to the many legal hurdles involved in obtaining asylum, mainly thanks to Trump administration policy that has put asylum status further and further out of reach of desperate immigrants.
Here are some common questions and misconceptions about the asylum process, explained:
Why is the Trump administration separating families at the border?
While the practice of separating children from their parents at the border is one spanning across multiple presidential administrations (it occurred rarely during the Bush and Obama administrations), the Trump administration has taken it several steps further. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will allow for the prosecution of all people, including asylum seekers, who do not cross into the United States at ports of entry or who make false statements to immigration officials. As a result, children are separated from their families while their parents await prosecution.
The policy is not, as Trump and his administration have falsely claimed, based on a Democratic law. In fact, Democrats recently introduced a measure that would virtually put an end to family separations, except in cases in which it is found that the children have been trafficked or abused by their parents. While some Republicans have spoken out about the president’s policy, none of them have expressed support for or signed on to the bill.
The policy is also not, as Sessions claimed, necessary for security reasons or because it is the will of God. In his announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy in April, Sessions spoke of a “crisis” erupting at the border and the need to close “dangerous loopholes” to stave off illegal immigration. But immigration to the United States has been on a steady decline since the final years of the Obama administration. Now, Trump’s zero tolerance policy has given way to a crisis at the border.
“Numbers [of immigrants] might fluctuate,” said Olga Byrne, director of immigration at the International Rescue Committee, referring to the increase in attempted border crossings last March. “But that’s not a crisis, it’s part of normal migration patterns.”
In a speech last week, Sessions said, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” As ThinkProgress previously noted, the verse is infamous for its origins as a popular defense of slavery, authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany, and South African apartheid.
Why don’t asylum seekers just stay in their countries?
South American asylum seekers are fleeing from a variety of dangerous conditions in their home countries, from gang violence to domestic abuse. Women often suffer the worst of the violence as femicide rates in Latin America continue to increase. In El Salvador, for instance, women are used as drug mules, raped, or brutally beaten, their bodies “treated as a territory for revenge and control,” United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, told CNN. According to the outlet, a person is murdered in El Salvador every two hours.
The majority of people, Byrne said, are coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where gang violence and violence against women is akin to that of some of the deadliest war zones.
Why don’t asylum seekers cross at ports of entry?
The administration has repeatedly argued that asylum seekers should cross at ports of entry if they want to avoid breaking the law and being separated from their families. But, Byrne told ThinkProgress, there are a number of reasons why immigrants may choose not to do so.
“Getting through Mexico is extremely arduous,” she said. “In the areas along the northern border of Mexico with the U.S., there has been a significant increase in criminal activity, as well as drug cartels and criminal organizations.”
Byrne explained that asylum seekers justifiably avoid such areas as there have been reports of criminals assaulting or kidnapping immigrants who seek to enter the United States.
This is a lie, and so is the tweet before it. Immigrant families are blocked from ports of entry by Mexican cartels and, at times, by @CBP. Being @DHSgov Secretary, you know this. But you’d rather gaslight us while families cross elsewhere, and find you there to take their kids. https://t.co/nn8mwYEw8u
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) June 17, 2018
“Asylum seekers might be traveling with a group. If you’ve got a mother with her five-year-old child and they’re traveling with a group, they’re simply going to go where the rest of the group is going,” Byrne added.
Asylum seekers may also avoid coming through ports of entry because immigration officials have, at times, rejected them.
“So you have many cases of asylum seekers going to ports of entry, getting rejected, and coming back through other areas,” Byrne said.
By turning asylum seekers away or detaining individuals who do not cross through ports of entry, the United States is violating international and U.S. law. Under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, states are prohibited from imposing penalties based on a person’s manner of entry into a country.
“It recognizes the reality that a person fleeing the country is not in a position to adhere to law,” Byrne said. “There’s no reason why the U.S., from a philosophical or practical perspective, shouldn’t be able to live up to its treaty obligations.”
How easy is it to obtain asylum?
Even if you do everything right — fill out all the appropriate forms and cross the U.S. border at a port of entry — the Trump administration has made it almost impossible to qualify for asylum.
“It’s extremely difficult to obtain asylum in the United States regardless of your manner of entry at the border,” Byrne said. “Detention in itself makes it more difficult to obtain asylum … your chances of getting legal counsel in detention are slim.”
Byrne cited the 2011 New York Immigrant Representation Study, which found that detention and transfer policies create significant obstacles for immigrants facing deportation from obtaining a lawyer. Those who are transferred outside of New York, for instance, are unrepresented 79 percent of the time.
To make matters worse, Sessions ruled last week that people seeking refuge from intimate partner violence and gang violence can no longer qualify for official asylum in the United States, as the perpetrator is a non-governmental actor. In the footnotes of the ruling, Sessions expressed that the ruling could mean more asylum seekers are turned away at the border.
Just three days before that, Sessions also ruled that an asylum seeker’s forced labor for a gang in El Salvador qualified as “material support” for a terrorist organization. The woman in question was kidnapped by a gang and forced to cook and clean for them under threat of death. Despite the circumstances of her involvement with the gang, the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that she was ineligible for asylum.
“That’s also going to have devastating consequences for people,” Byrne said, adding that domestic and gang violence in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is widespread.
According to the International Rescue Committee, in 2016, El Salvador and Honduras were in the top 10 countries with the highest murder rates of women. An average of more than nine women and girls were killed in El Salvador every week in 2017. “What’s worse, when women and children are forced to flee, the journey north is fraught with dangers, including shocking levels of rape and sexual violence along the route.”
But these realities did not stop Sessions from personally rewriting immigration rules and his recent rulings are only the latest examples of government officials narrowing the grounds for asylum. Over the last several months, the Trump administration has hampered the ability of asylum seekers to appeal decisions, detained asylum seekers for an indefinite amount of time, and flat-out turned asylum seekers away from the border, even if they’ve followed appropriate protocol.
Does Trump’s family separation policy actually deter people from coming to the United States?
The Trump administration hoped that the threat of family separations would deter immigrants from attempting to cross into the United States, but the policy hasn’t worked in achieving that goal.
According to internal Homeland Security Department documents obtained by CNN, the Trump administration expected to see the “full impact of policy initiatives” within two to three weeks from the time it was announced in April. But data shows that, since then, there has been a 5 percent increase in the number of people attempting to cross the border, including an increase in unaccompanied children.
While the decision to leave and risk detention or stay and get killed is an “agonizing” one, Byrne said, it is not likely that family separations will compel people to choose the latter.