By Eva Hassett
Imagine you and your family live in Honduras or El Salvador, countries with the highest murder rates in the world, where young children are forced to join warring gangs. Going to school or work means risking your life, unless you work for the drug gangs. If you’re a female, you’ve either been raped or you are threatened with assault daily.
There is no future for you. Or your children. You decide to take a risk, to stay alive and be free. You will go to America.
There is no refugee advocate to help in your country. You must get to the United States and apply for asylum. You pray your story and desire to stay alive will be compelling enough. But you have no other choice.
How different is this from Irish families who came to America so they didn’t starve? From European Jews escaping religious persecution? Hungarians facing political persecution? Italians fleeing extreme poverty?
It isn’t. Except now, brave parents are being treated as dangerous criminals and their children taken away by our government. Arrested for seeking the same asylum and freedom our ancestors did just a generation or two ago.
To seek asylum, one has to reach U.S. soil, which sometimes means entering without documentation. Our laws demand that asylum applicants enter the country, declare intent to seek asylum and go through a long, complicated legal process.
America was founded on the principle of asylum; our country welcomes “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Asylum, as a human right, is enshrined in international law and U.S. law since the Refugee Act of 1980. It is a legal right, not a crime.
The Trump administration is trying to cut off access to asylum. Federal agents are turning families away at ports of entry, charging them criminally before assessing their asylum claim. In April, the Trump administration began separating children – of all ages, including babies – from parents in hope of deterring families trying to enter. They are ripping children away as a threat.
As the descendants of immigrants, we implore the president and Congress to end the barbaric practice of criminalizing people trying to stay alive. Traumatizing already traumatized children who’ve done nothing wrong, ripping families apart to deter people from using their rights, must not be tolerated. Condemning families to return to violence and death or else have their children taken away is cruelty that doesn’t belong in this country.
President Trump on Wednesday signed an order ending the family separation policy. He has not signaled an end to “zero tolerance” criminalization, or a willingness to allow families to pursue their legal right to seek asylum. If families are detained indefinitely, there will be legal challenges. Families will have to fight criminal and immigration cases from detention, likely without lawyers. Time limits placed on asylum cases will make them virtually impossible to prove. Family detention is not the answer. Much is unclear; the devil is always in the details.
The president, Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and members of Congress need to act immediately to stop our government from blocking the right to asylum, criminalizing parents seeking safety, ripping families apart and harming innocent children to punish parents for following the laws we made. We plead with members from both sides of the aisle to follow their conscience, their faith and our collective American values.
Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, co-authored this piece with Adam Croglia and Jenny Rizzo-Choi, institute board members.