Amid calls for the end of a policy that has separated upward of 2,000 migrant children from their parents along the southern border of the United States since April, President Donald Trump said Monday that "the United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee-holding facility… not on my watch."
The growing outcry has included Republican and Democratic voices, as well as a former and the current first lady.
Former first lady Laura Bush called the practice “cruel” and “immoral.” First lady Melania Trump issued a statement saying she “hates” to see families separated at the border, and hopes both Democrats and Republicans can come together to reform the nation’s immigration laws.
What has caused the most recent uproar? Here is what you need to know about the government’s “zero tolerance” policy and its practice.
What is the policy?
In April, the Justice Department notified all U.S. attorney's offices along the Southwest border of a "zero-tolerance policy" when it comes to violation of immigration laws. The notification addressed both "attempted illegal entry and illegal entry into the United States by an alien."
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the government was committing to criminal immigration enforcement instead of seeing the crimes as a violation of civil law. He directed federal prosecutors to prioritize the prosecution of certain criminal immigration offenses.
The practice had been that when parents arriving illegally with their children were caught, they were quickly released with orders to appear later in court on a civil charge of entering the country illegally.
The Southwest border mentioned in the notification includes the districts of Arizona, New Mexico, the Western and Southern Districts of Texas and the Southern District of California.
Is this a new policy?
No, it is not a new policy. The "zero-tolerance" policy is related to another policy called Operation Streamline. Operation Streamline was an initiative by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice that was initiated in 2005. Under Operation Streamline those caught in the act of crossing the U.S. border without authorization may be rounded up and subject to criminal prosecution. Prior to implementing Operation Streamline, most prosecutors brought civil charges for illegal entry into the U.S.
Penalties under Operation Streamline were:
First-time offenders are prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry (8 U.S.C. Section 1325) which carries a six-month maximum sentence.
Any migrant who has been deported in the past and attempts to re-enter without authorization can be charged with felony re-entry, which carries a two-year sentence. It could involve more time, up to 20 years, if the migrant has a criminal record.
Why the policy change in April?
According to the notification, the zero tolerance policy "comes as the Department of Homeland Security reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018, and a 37 percent increase from February 2018 to March 2018 — the largest month-to-month increase since 2011."
Why are children being taken from their parents?
Children are being separated from their parents because their parents are being arrested and put into federal criminal custody. Children cannot be housed in prisons, so they are being taken to centers to be cared for if relatives in the United States cannot be located to care for them.
What happens to them and where are they being held?
When a child is separated from their parent after entering the country illegally, he or she is classified as an unaccompanied alien child – meaning a minor who is not in the company of a parent or guardian and is not in the country legally.
Unaccompanied alien children are put into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an umbrella organization of the HHS, is responsible for the care of these children. ORR contracts with child care providers to take care of the children.
According to The New York Times, ORR is now overseeing an estimated 100 shelters in 17 states. The Corpus Christi Caller has reported that Southwest Key Programs "operates 16 of the 35 shelters that contract with the ORR" in Texas. It was one of those shelters where U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, (D-Oregon), was denied entrance last week.
How many children are we talking about?
The number varies, but nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents in April and May – after the zero-tolerance policy was put into effect.
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