Under the Media Radar, Trump Is Locking Up More Refugees
Editor’s note: The story of America is the story of immigrants. But since Donald Trump became president, the immigration issue has become a humanitarian crisis in the United States. Truthdig political correspondent Bill Boyarsky investigates the impact of Trump’s anti-immigrant racism on Los Angeles—home to 1 million undocumented immigrants—in this ongoing series for Truthdig called “Demonizing the City of Angels.” You can read all of Boyarsky’s stories in the series here.
Lock them up and throw away the key. That sums up President Donald Trump’s efforts to stop immigrants from seeking asylum when threatened by gangs, abusive spouses or their own murderous homelands. Thanks to a preoccupied news media, Trump is getting away with it.
The Trump effort is revealed in a lawsuit filed by Freedom for Immigrants and several other pro-immigrant groups. The suit alleges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices are denying parole or bond to immigrants asking for asylum and holding them in detention centers until they are granted hearings in chronically backlogged immigration courts. The process may take months or even years. In the past, many more were paroled or released on bond until their court hearings came up.
“We demand an immediate end to the arbitrary, prolonged, and indiscriminate detention of asylum seekers,” said Christina M. Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, in a letter to federal immigration officials. Fialho, writing on behalf of other organizations in the lawsuit, said:
“Denying parole or bond to families and individuals who are simply exercising their right to seek protection under international law and who in many cases have urgent humanitarian needs, including the right to family unity, is a gross injustice. The practice tears apart families and communities, and it has devastating impacts on an already traumatized population.”
This alleged denial of parole comes on top of another anti-immigrant ICE policy: arresting undocumented parents and sending them to detention centers far from their children. Such cases were cited in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed earlier this month accusing the U.S. government of separating immigrant families seeking asylum.
To be granted asylum, an immigrant must convince an immigration official and then a court that she or he has “a well-founded fear of persecution … on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Courts have ruled that threatened assault by criminal gangs fits that description.
The Trump administration’s intent in going after asylum seekers, according to a former federal immigration judge, is to deter them from coming to the United States.
“The theory is that detention, particularly under poor conditions with no access to lawyers, family, or friends, will grind down individuals so that they abandon their claims. …” retired immigration judge Paul Wickham Schmidt told a group of lawyers last year. “As they return to their countries and relate their unhappy experiences with the U.S. justice system, that supposedly will ‘deter’ other individuals from coming.”
The numbers of asylum-seeking immigrants is relatively small compared to the approximately 11 million unauthorized, undocumented immigrants in this country. The Trump administration considers asylum a loophole in the law, opening the door to more immigration.
In response to the worsening global humanitarian crisis in Central America and the Middle East, the Obama administration had increased the number of refugees the United States accepts annually, from 85,000 in fiscal 2016 to 110,000 in fiscal 2017. And that from a president who was attacked by immigrant advocates as “deporter in chief.”
Trump issued executive orders to cut refugee admissions to 50,000 and suspend the refugee resettlement program for 120 days, according to the Migration Policy Institute. A federal court has blocked these moves and more than 42,000 refugees have been resettled this year.
Still, large numbers of those seeking asylum are ending up in federal custody. The difference between the enforcement policies of Trump and Obama is illustrated by these figures from the TRAC Immigration Project of Syracuse University. Under Obama, 54 percent of immigrants seeking asylum were paroled while awaiting a court hearing. Under Trump, just 25 percent have been released, with the rest held in detention centers awaiting an immigration court hearing.
While the numbers of those seeking asylum are fairly small compared to the many millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, their plight illustrates important points about the immigration controversy.
One is the utter determination of the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on immigrants. Rebuffed by the courts, the federal authorities have proceeded anyway. They are able to do this because immigration cops are focused on deportations and because the laws governing asylum are so complicated that only an experienced immigration lawyer can navigate them.
The overwhelming number of asylum seekers have no such representation, either when they are interviewed by immigration police or in court. Imagine the terror of a refugee trying to answer questions, knowing that prison or separation from his or her kids may await.
Another important point is the failure of much of the news media to cover the situation. I know, after wading through the asylum laws, that it is complicated. Trump’s porn stars and madman management style are more interesting and get more clicks, readers and cable TV viewers.
But the fate of the asylum seekers shows the contempt that Trump and his minions have for civil rights, not only for immigrants but also for anyone who challenges him.
Journalists, suffering from a short attention span, forget this. They’ve got to understand they may be Trump’s next target. The asylum cases are a warning for us all.