The Fight Over Separating Families at the Border Goes Beyond Rallies and Hashtags

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Last Thursday, 300 people convened in the West Side’s Guadalupe Plaza to decry the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from parents suspected of crossing the border illegally.

It was one of about 30 such rallies planned across the country last week as Twitter lit up with hashtags like #FamiliesBelongTogether and #WhereAreTheChildren.

“Today is not about politics. I’m not speaking to you as a Democrat,” said Castro, D-San Antonio, whose office helped set up the event. “This is very much a call to conscience. This is what our nation fundamentally stands for.”
But outrage can’t just take the form of tweeting and carrying signs, immigration experts caution. Reversing Trump’s hardline policy will require legal action, pressure on lawmakers to act and volunteer time from concerned citizens.

“What’s interesting is that we’re seeing people coming out from across the political spectrum to show their rage,” said Justin Tullius, associate executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a nonprofit that offers free legal help for immigrants. “It’s going to take court remedies, but it’s also going to take action at the grassroots level.”

Between May 6 and May 19, at least 638 migrants who crossed with 658 children were charged under the Trump Administration’s separation policy, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told a Senate committee last week.
That policy is a departure from enforcement under previous presidents, which typically kept families together while they awaited immigration hearings. While homeland security officials maintain they don’t separate families at the border as a deterrent, Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t exactly made a tactful salesman for that claim.

“If you cross the border unlawfully... then we will prosecute you,” Sessions, an immigration hardliner, said last month. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law.”
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Immigrant-rights groups are hoping the Trump Administration’s punitive language can help build the legal case that the rule should be thrown out.

“Here we have the highest law enforcement official in the United States openly admitting that he’s deliberately taking punitive action against these parents and their children for seeking asylum,” said Efren Olivares, the Texas Civil Rights Project’s racial and economic justice director.

Olivares is among a coalition of Texas lawyers that last week filed an emergency request with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asking it to order the U.S. to strike down its policy and reunite separated families. The filing was made on behalf of five immigrant families apprehended by border agents in South Texas.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class action lawsuit seeking to stop the feds from breaking up families at the border. A federal judge in California is now considering the case.

Lawmakers also appear to have picked up on the outrage, although observers caution that relief on that front is likely to be slow.

Even though more members of Congress have signed a discharge petition that would force votes on legislative fixes for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Republican-controlled House and Senate haven’t shown much appetite for tackling immigration issues.

Nevertheless, as of press time Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she’ll introduce legislation to prevent separation of immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border, adding that “Congress has a moral obligation to stand.”

“It’s hard to conceive of a policy more horrific than intentionally separating children from their parents as a form of punishment. ... This is not what the United States of America should be,” she said in a press statement.

In the meantime, organizations like RAICES are hoping they can convince people to do more than call their elected representatives. The group last week launched a new program offering pro bono legal services for separated parents detained at the South Texas Detention Complex south of San Antonio and at the Prairieland Detention Center near Fort Worth.

“A child with legal representation isn’t lost,” RAICES’s Tullius said. “We need to make sure everyone goes through the system with a lawyer.”

But to make that a reality, Tullius said groups like his will need additional funding from community donors. RAICES is also seeking to widen its volunteer base, which includes people willing to accompany families to court and Immigration and Customs Enforcement meetings.

“What is happening at the border is a universal humanitarian issue,” State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said during last week’s West Side rally. “We can resolve this, but it will take all of us.”

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