ColumnsNational/ International

Responding to family separation on the southern border

Photo: Children and members of faith groups gather June 21 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington to protest the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. (CNS photo/courtesy Jason Miller, Franciscan Action Network)


“Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt”

—(Matthew 2:13).

By Miryam Antúnez De Mayolo

Special to The Witness

One of the priorities of the current administration has been to halt both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. Many of the measures undertaken to achieve that end have been highly controversial, like the “Muslim” travel ban, the proposal to curtail family-based immigration and building a wall on our southern border. None of those measures had faced the widespread condemnation as the new and unprecedented policy of taking children away from their parents and placing them in foster care when they come to the United States through the southern border. This administration has tried to justify it by saying that separating children from their parents is just a consequence of enforcing the law that people break when they enter the United States without a visa, and President Trump has attributed that practice to a law passed by Demo­crats. This is patently false; there is no such law.

Title 8, section 1325, paragraphs (a) and (b) of the U.S. Code make it a misdemeanor to enter the United States without a visa, evading inspection by an immigration officer. The maximum penalty for that violation is six months in prison and/ or a fine not greater than $250. A violation of that section of the law is akin, in rank and punishment, to Iowa’s lowest form of misdemeanors, like minor shoplifting or trespassing. Past administrations briefly considered and quickly discarded prosecuting immigrants who entered without inspection when they came with their minor children. In announcing a “zero tolerance” policy to border crossers, John ­Kelly, the White House chief of staff, ­stated that the purpose of this draconian policy is precisely to deter people from coming to the United States without inspection. Can we imagine imposing a comparable measure to other categories of people who are charged with the lowest form of misdemeanors? Doing so is not only callous, but a violation of human rights and the rights of children.

The perversity of the new policy is that it is being applied not only to people who are breaking the law by coming without a visa, but to people who fear persecution in their home countries due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. These people approach the U.S. border looking for border patrol agents rather than evading them. They often come with evidence of the persecution they have suffered in their home countries:  dirty ransom notes, loved ones’ death certificates attesting to horrible deaths, pictures of mutilated body parts. Many times they bear the evidence of their ordeal on their bodies:  half-healed bullet wounds, stabbing scars:  gory and permanent evidence of torture. They come trying to avail themselves of a legal procedure that has been part of our laws and jurisprudence for decades and that has been recognized and protected by international law for centuries:  the right to seek asylum. Instead of honoring those pleas for protection, these asylum seekers are falsely accused of breaking the law and are further traumatized and abused by having their children ripped away from them by the country that was supposed to protect them.

It’s time to act: call Senators Grassley (515) 288-1145 and Ernst (515) 284-4574, ask them to cosponsor Senate Bill 3036 that would bar children from being taken away from their parents at the border. Inundate them with calls. Make your voices heard on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and on behalf of that tiny refugee that our Lord once was. 

Miryam Antúnez De Mayolo is an attorney for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Immigration Legal Services. This article is part of an occassional series on immigration.