Zero Tolerance: Family Separation and US Immigration Policy

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The Trump administration initiated the zero-tolerance policy in 2018, which suggested the prosecution of anyone who crosses the U.S. borders illegally. The administration argued that they could charge the immigrants under a 1929 law stating that crossing borders between ports of entry were a misdemeanor. It had a maximum of $250 fine and six months imprisonment. 

The law expected immigrants to plead guilty and get served. The authorities would then transfer them to immigration agencies before deportation. 

However, it is always complicated if the convicted immigrant travels with a child. What is the children’s fate? 

Once Homeland Security detained their parents, they would regard minors as “unaccompanied.” The children would have been long gone when the authorities processed the parents. 

According to Efren Olivares, the deputy legal director of the Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the essence of the law was to deter future immigrants from illegal routes by inflicting much pain and suffering on the apprehended victims. 

Olivares narrated the touching story of one Viviana from Guatemala who was headed north with her teenage son. Some unknown assailants had murdered her husband and were after her and the son’s life. 

But after the state arrested her, they placed her son at a South Texas shelter while they sent the mother to a facility in Seattle. The pair had separated for 58 days when they eventually reunited. Such stories abound in the system.

“Migration is typical among humans globally. Human beings migrate for safety and opportunity; you move closer to where you will be safe and find opportunities to explore,” says, Zaira Solano of  Solano Law Firm LLC. This reasoning is the mindset of millennia. 

Although many U.S. citizens seem to be uncomfortable with the family separation part of the zero-tolerance policy, the disdainful feeling did not change things quickly. Olivares opined that “slavery was the true precursor of the family separation policy.” Separation was well-known among enslaved people, and many enslavers sold children away from their parents. 

The U.S. is known for restricting immigration based on one’s originating country. The move started with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act in 1924. The latter Act mainly aimed at favoring white Northern European nations. 

The border patrol came into existence in 1924 to enforce the Immigration Act. It led to family separation in that process. The zero-tolerance policy became a polemic because Americans could not agree; some believed the Act was right because the affected immigrants crossed the borders illegally, while others thought some were refugees and had the right to seek help. 

Olivares and some colleagues have always argued that the authorities should allow the voice of reasoning to prevail. They believed it was inhumane to separate innocent, young children from their parents. 

Everything changed when the audio file in a detention facility leaked. The file captured children in a detention facility crying for their parents. They cried for eight minutes nonstop. It was a very painful audio file. 

The tape came to public knowledge on a Monday evening, and within 48 hours, the president signed an executive order halting the draconian family separation policy. 

The audio powerfully turned public opinion against the family separation and immigration policy. Perhaps, the audio was more potent than a photo or video could have been because people could only hear the kids cry; everyone thought it could be their children’s voices. Putting yourself in their shoes would force you to be compassionate to them. 

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