Washington, D.C.—Top immigration officials in the United States are recommending that all parents caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with their children be prosecuted, according to a memo reviewed by the Washington Post. Those families who turn themselves in to immigration authorities and petition for asylum at official border-crossing points, known as ports of entry, will not be prosecuted for illegal entry, the Post reported. According to human rights advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), implementing such a policy would be counterproductive: in addition to cruelly splitting families apart and funneling mothers and fathers fleeing Central American gang violence into the U.S. prison system, such a policy could potentially spark a humanitarian crisis on the Mexican side of the border that will only further endanger those who have fled their homes seeking protection.
“The Trump administration’s proposal that we prosecute and imprison asylum seekers who’ve endured harrowing journeys with their children is sickening and cruel,” said WOLA President Matt Clausen. “Our country has a long history of sheltering those who would otherwise face death and persecution in their home country. The level of xenophobia in this administration is shameful, and it continues to result in inhumane, disastrous policies,” he said.
The proposed policy follows previous calls by the U.S. Department of Justice to prioritize charging border-crossers for illegal entry. It would also extend the criminal prosecutions of asylum seekers, a practice that violates U.S. treaty obligations and increases the odds that these people will be sent back to the dangers they were fleeing in their home countries. WOLA’s on-the-ground research along the U.S.-Mexico border has also found that many families are unable to go directly to the understaffed, under-equipped formal ports of entry and claim asylum there. Instead, smugglers and criminal groups force them to enter the United States by crossing the northern Mexican border in between the official ports of entry, a phenomenon which also has been described in Border Patrol testimony before Congress.
Should the U.S. government implement a policy in which asylum seekers must either make their request at ports of entry or risk imprisonment, there is a strong likelihood that this would overwhelm cities on the Mexican side of the border, as the under-resourced U.S. ports of entry struggle to deal with an influx of asylum seekers. The migrant shelters, churches, and civic groups that provide temporary food and shelter to asylum seekers in Mexican border cities will come under great strain, especially if families must wait weeks to obtain an asylum appointment (as previously seen when an influx of Haitians seeking humanitarian parole arrived in Tijuana in 2016). Given past reports of U.S. immigration officials at ports of entry who mistreat and actively try to discourage people from seeking asylum, such abusive and illegal practices would likely only intensify should the unprepared ports of entry suddenly have to deal with an increased flow of asylum seekers.
A concentration of Central American families and other asylum seekers in Mexican border towns also represents a risk for their safety and could further strengthen criminal groups in the region. Mexican border towns like Tijuana and Reynosa are experiencing some of the highest levels of violence in the country. In addition, this policy could make it easier for organized crime groups operating on the Mexican side of the border to more easily detect and therefore prey on the migrants, who they usually extort, rob, kidnap, and forcibly recruit.
“The Trump administration wants to make it a crime to cross the border and ask for asylum, yet it seems to have no grasp of the conditions on the ground that are forcing people to flee their home countries,” said WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer. “Asylum seekers are going to keep coming not because they’re conspiring to ‘overwhelm’ the U.S. immigration system, but because they cannot risk staying home and getting killed. There is no one policy that is going to deter desperate families who are trying to save their lives,” said Meyer.
Trump’s immigration officials have rarely publicly acknowledged that record levels of violence in Honduras and El Salvador, as well as political unrest in Honduras and Venezuela, has helped create a humanitarian issue in the region and is contributing to the uptick in asylum petitions at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Criminally prosecuting parents for illegal entry when they come here in search of asylum will do nothing to impact the insecurity and persecution they experienced in their home countries,” said Meyer. “This proposal will make it easier for criminal groups operating on the Mexican side to exploit vulnerable families that will be concentrated in Mexican border towns,” she said.