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Migrants on the U.S. southern border are enduring systemic human rights abuses. Children and adults alike are held in overcrowded processing pens, hungry and neglectedFamilies are torn apart. People are dying on their journey toward safety and in U.S. government custody.

Abuses on the border are not happening because of a resource crunch. They are happening because of Trump administration policies designed to visit cruelty on immigrants and deter asylum seekers. Recent revelations regarding social media posts by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents expose the culture of hate and racism that exists within the agency implementing these policies. More funds for these agencies will only fuel the drivers of abuse. Real change will require rescission of the policies causing the abuse, meaningful congressional oversight of the agencies carrying them out, and a transformative approach to immigration law and policy.

What are the policies creating these abusive conditions? The president’s January 2017 Executive Order laid a roadmap for a restrictionist overhaul of U.S. border policies. The administration has relentlessly sought to realize this vision, with the deaths and suffering of migrant families and children the inevitable result. These policies include:

1.    Turning asylum seekers back to Mexico through illegal “metering” and “MPP” policies

When migrants present themselves at U.S. ports of entry to lawfully seek asylum, border agents routinely turn them back to wait for weeks or months through a policy known as “metering.” Other migrants are processed into the U.S. but promptly returned to Mexico to await their hearing date through a program the administration refers to as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). At least 13,000 people are waiting in Mexico subject to metering and more than 15,000 have been returned to Mexico through MPP, all at constant risk of robbery, assault, extortion, kidnapping, and homicide in parts of Mexico notoriously dangerous for migrants. Those awaiting their court dates struggle to develop their asylum case without access to U.S. attorneys or legal service organizationsThese policies are routinely forcing migrants who cannot wait safely in Mexico to cross between ports, risking death and criminal prosecution. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his baby Valeria were among those who tried to reach safety in the U.S. after being turned back through metering; they drowned before reaching safety, their images in death shocking the nation.  

2.    Prolonged detention of children

CBP is holding children in custody for days and weeks beyond the 72-hour limit imposed by law rather promptly transferring them to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency responsible for ensuring that children who arrive at the U.S. border alone are cared for until they can be reunified with a parent or loved one. The administration claims these delays are due to pressure on HHS’s capacity to hold children in longer-term care. But its own policies are responsible for pushing the HHS system beyond capacity by prolonging the detention of unaccompanied immigrant children who otherwise could be released. In April 2017, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entered into an agreement inserting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into HHS’s reunification process. This agreement dramatically slowed the reunification process and made family members reluctant to come forward to pursue reunification, for fear ICE would target them for detention and deportation. As HHS resources ran dry because more children were entering custody but few were being released, the administration went so far as to terminate recreational and educational services for children rather than rescind this harmful policy.

3.    Overcrowding and expansion of ICE jails

The administration has expanded and systemically over-crowded ICE detention facilities by abandoning discretion over who it jails and jailing them for longer. In violation of its own agency directives, ICE jails asylum seekers for the duration of their asylum proceedings even when they have community sponsors. The administration has also doubled down on abusive enforcement operations in U.S. homes and workplaces. Even while claiming to be short on resources, ICE is planning massive raids that will target families and community members for arrest and removal. This jail-obsessed approach to immigration policy ignores mountains of evidence demonstrating it to be cheaper, more effective, and more humane to support immigrants in the community during their court proceedings. Furthermore, the administration uses overcrowding in ICE facilities to vindicate the inhumane overcrowding asylum seekers are being subjected to at border facilities.

Historians are warning us that the mass detention of migrants, deprived of due process and subject to dehumanizing conditions and actions by government actors, signals a dangerous moment for the U.S.  Transformative change is imperative. The policies described above must be rescinded. Congress must impose robust oversight of DHS’s treatment of migrants. And, finally, we must dismantle the current immigration policy and rebuild toward a just framework for welcoming immigrants. Guideposts for such an approach are available through numerous resources including:

Heidi Altman is NIJC's director of policy. For questions, contact her by email.