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Homeland Security Urged to Prosecute Parents Who Cross Border With Kids

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, shown here with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaks during a news conference in December 2017. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

According to a report from The Washington Post, some of the country’s top immigration chiefs are now urging Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to begin detaining and criminally prosecuting undocumented adult border-crossers. The Post reports that this represents “a stark change in policy that would result in the separation of families that until now have mostly been kept together.”

Three top-level officials—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan and Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna—signed off on the suggestion in a memo obtained by The Washington Post. The memo shows how uniformly Trump’s immigration officials want to prosecute undocumented immigrants.

In a statement, Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the agency “is looking at all options in conjunction with the Attorney General’s zero tolerance policy for those illegally crossing the border. We will not comment further on internal deliberations. Again, DHS does not have a policy of separating families at the border for deterrence purposes. DHS does, however, have a legal obligation to protect the best interests of the child whether that be from human smugglings, drug traffickers, or nefarious actors who knowingly break our immigration laws and put minor children at risk.”

The Washington Post continues:

Most immigrants caught crossing the border illegally have typically faced civil deportation hearings to determine whether they may stay in the United States. But border-crossers can be charged criminally as well.

Over the past two decades, in an attempt to deter illegal crossings, criminal prosecutions have increased sharply—from fewer than 10,000 in 1996 to a high of 90,000 in 2013, according to TRAC, a Syracuse University organization that monitors immigration prosecutions.

The most common criminal charge is “improper entry by alien”—or illegal entry—the charge recommended in the memo. For first offenders, it is typically a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison or fines. Repeat offenders can be fined or imprisoned for up to two years or charged with the more serious offense of “illegal reentry.”

The memo says that referring for prosecution all immigrants caught sneaking across the border “would likely have the most effective impact,” though it may also present an increased risk of legal challenges.

The officials who signed the memo also presented Nielsen with other options, including prosecuting all single adults, or working with prosecutors to charge as many adults as possible.

The Hill notes that, typically, when undocumented immigrants are caught crossing the border they are released while awaiting their deportation hearings, meaning that they are able to stay with their families throughout the process. If adults were jailed while awaiting hearings, families would inevitably be pulled apart. Philip G. Schrag, a professor at Georgetown Law, told The Washington Post that separating parents and children could cause severe harm to families.

“I think it’s absolutely wrenching psychologically and terrible for both the children and the parents,” he said. “What are we doing to those children psychologically that will haunt us years down the road if they become Americans?”

ICE Director Homan has been a controversial figure since taking over in January 2017. He has presided over a spike in immigration raids and arrests, and has drawn criticism and condemnation from immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations.

It is not yet clear whether Nielsen, who has led the Department of Homeland Security since late last year, will take the officials’ advice.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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