This past week the U.S. Justice Department instituted new rules pertaining to the detention of children and families at the southern border. The ruling changes the Flores settlement of 1997 that said children and families are to be held in the least restrictive manner as possible, and that children needed to be released from custody within 20 days. The Flores settlement also established basic guidelines for care while families were in custody. The new ruling allows families and children to be held indefinitely, and it abolishes the minimum guidelines for care.
The reason for the new rule, according to the Trump administration, is twofold: First, it keeps families together during the asylum seeking process, and second, it deters the use of children as a way to get access to the United States. One person in the administration described it as a deterrent to prevent children from being used as pawns in the immigration debate. While it sounds reasonable, it’s a bit more complicated.
Two weeks ago I spent a Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico. We visited a church that takes in immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. We listened to one woman talk about the difficulties she left behind, the violence and threats from gangs wanting money from their local business in exchange for protection. She traveled with her children, believing the dangerous trip was worth it because the conditions were unlivable–she had no choice but to head north. Later that afternoon, I asked the head pastor what she would say to someone in the U.S. government. “We need help,” she said. “People come because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. These people don’t want to leave their homes, but they don’t feel they have a choice.” She then said the best thing individuals, organizations, and governments can do is to address the conditions in these countries that cause people to leave in the first place.
Which brings me back to this new law. Incarcerating families indefinitely will not stop the flow to the border. When people feel they have no other option, when they see asylum or immigration as the only way out, they will come. When people feel the lives of their family are threatened, they will come. They will risk the danger, they will risk incarceration, and they will risk deportation because they see no other alternative. They are desperate, and when people are desperate nothing will deter them from seeking a better life.
A much better solution is for the United States to invest money and resources in the countries from which people are coming. Before you say, “The United States can’t get involved in other countries,” it’s important we study our history. People are coming from countries where the U.S. has already been involved in creating the unstable conditions that have caused people to migrate north. (For an essay on Honduras click here. For El Salvador click here.) It’s time to address the problem at the root. Most immigrants don’t want to leave their homeland, but they feel they have no choice. Julian Castro has suggested the need for a Central American Marshall plan, as has President Trump. Others believe such a plan will not work given the lack of democratic institutions needed to deal with corruption. Regardless, the U.S. had a role in making the mess, we need to have a role in making things right.
These changes to the Flores settlement will not deter immigrants from bringing children and families to the border. It’s time for the Christian community to set aside partisan ideology and work for solutions that contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors to the south. Contact your members of congress and your senators, and tell them to oppose this new ruling. Incarcerating families and children is not the answer.