The shouting and bickering over immigration policy in the Republican campaign, featuring derogatory terms like “anchor babies” and wacky ideas like rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants and booting them out, has captured headlines this summer.
The spectacle on the campaign trail represents a phony debate that offers Americans a load of unrealistic baloney instead of a well-thought-out policy about a very real problem. In the end, as long as common sense and the Constitution prevail, mass deportations on a scale envisioned by demagogues like Donald Trump are highly unlikely.
And while the public is distracted by this political sideshow, real news has been developing in the nation’s courts that demands attention because it affects actual government policies that don’t reflect well on the Obama administration: The Department of Homeland Security has been skirting the law by acting too harshly in treating children caught in the immigration snare at the border.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in California slammed DHS for its failure to uphold the terms of a 1997 court-ordered settlement governing the treatment of unaccompanied children — minors who tried to enter the country illegally without a parent. That settlement, which now also applies to immigrant children in detention who are accompanied by a parent, requires the rapid release of children and their parents caught crossing the border illegally. This is believed to affect roughly 1,400 children and their parents who are in detention awaiting asylum hearings.
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An order by Judge Dolly M. Gee, of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, also prohibited the administration from holding children in secure facilities that are not licensed to care for minors. The prisons to which these children have been transferred are run by private prison contractors, not by agencies licensed to care for children, as the legal settlement requires.
The federal judge also ordered the department to upgrade the “deplorable” conditions in its border stations, where the children are held at first, and said the new measures must be in place by Oct. 23.
When the administration balked, warning ominously of another flood of children at the border if they were released too soon, the judge labeled the reply “speculative at best and, at worst, fear mongering.”
The administration’s position has also been criticized by immigrant advocates and lawyers, as well as the American Bar Association, which said that prolonged detention of migrant families has been consistently rejected by the courts and damages their due-process rights of access to counsel.
To immigration hardliners, this may sound like so much bleeding-heart blather. But it’s much more than that because — like the deplorable prison at Guantánamo — it goes to the issue of upholding our tradition of respect for the law, as well as the question of who we are as a nation.
There is an obvious need to maintain public safety by holding and deporting immigrants with criminal backgrounds. But where is the public interest in incarcerating children and their parents for longer than the bare minimum? Once released on public-recognizance bonds, those who secure legal help have a good record of showing up for scheduled hearings.
Hysteria over illegal immigration does not justify a failure to treat all immigrants humanely and in accordance with the law. Those who pose no threat to public safety should not be targets of incarceration — especially children.