On October 10, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published in the Federal Register a 447-page proposed rule changing the definition of a “public charge,” a term applied to legal immigrants who access certain public benefits. While in previous years and administrations, the public charge ground of inadmissibility was triggered by receipt of cash assistance, the new rule would include receipt of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing support. This is only the latest, but perhaps the most devastating, attack on immigrant families and children by the Trump administration.
Other anti-family Trump administration policies have included the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, a mass deportation and detention scheme, termination of legal status for over 300,000 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and attempts to slash family-based immigration. Individually, each policy weakens the family. Taken together, they reflect a broader strategy to reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter or to remain in the country. The following initiatives should be opposed by faith communities all along the ideological spectrum based upon how they adversely impact immigrant families.
Changes to the Implementation of Public Charge
The public charge rule will prevent countless immigrants from qualifying for legal entry or for permanent residence, known as a green card. The rule expands the list of benefits which would make an immigrant a likely public charge, including Medicaid, housing support, and food stamps, all of which are life-sustaining benefits. The new policy would weaken family unity and harm innocent children by forcing parents to choose between feeding and taking care of their children or losing a chance for permanent residence. The proposed rule already has had a chilling effect on families, who have chosen to forego the use of these benefits in order to preserve their chance at becoming Americans and living the American dream.
Family Separation at the Border and Child Detention
For several weeks earlier this year, national attention was focused on the crisis on the US-Mexico border, in which 2,560 minors, some under the age of five, were separated from their parents. The administration’s family separation policy was met with criticism from all corners of American society and has since been ended, but 358 children remain separated from their families. The zero-tolerance policy prosecuting parents for illegal border entry, however, remains in place.
Since then, the administration has issued a proposed rule altering the decision in Flores v. Reno, a court settlement which prevents children from being held in detention centers longer than 20 days. The regulation would permit the indefinite detention of children in families until their court proceedings are complete, a process that can last years. Moreover, the administration now detains about 13,000 unaccompanied children, some in tent cities, because of a new policy requiring fingerprints and background checks of family sponsors. The new policy has deterred undocumented parents or relatives from coming forward and reuniting with the child.
Mass Deportation Policy
Early on in the administration, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that prioritized the type of immigrants who should be detained and deported, with criminal aliens at the top of the list. But the priorities were written in such a broad way that any undocumented person, regardless of their criminal record or equities in the country, have become targets for deportation, including long-term residents with US-citizen children. Because of this broad policy, immigrant arrests have increased by more than 40 percent since early 2017, with the number arrested without criminal records up 171 percent.
Immigrant parents with US-citizen children have been caught up in the arrests, as approximately 4.1 million US-citizen children reside in a household with at least one undocumented parent. Immigration raids in Tennessee, Ohio, and Wisconsin, for example, have left hundreds of children stranded at school, waiting in vain for their parents to pick them up.
Removing Legal Status from Immigrants
The administration has, step-by-step, removed legal status from large immigrant populations, leaving them vulnerable to deportation and family separation. Over 300,000 immigrants granted legal status years ago because of conflict or natural disaster in their countries—under a program known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS)—have had their protection ended. In losing their legal status, residents from Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, and Sudan, among others, would have to either leave their US-citizen children behind or take them to a country they do not know, undermining their futures. According to a study by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), nationals of these countries have approximately 273,000 US-citizen children who now face permanent separation from their parents.
The administration also has removed protections from another immigrant group – undocumented youth brought by their parents to the United States at an early age – by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Unless Congress acts or the Supreme Court rules that the administration must continue the program, some 800,000 young persons would face the same dilemma, having to choose between either leaving their US-citizen children behind or taking them to a country they do not know and an uncertain future. According to another CMS study, this group has 392,500 US-citizen children who could be left behind.
Proposals to End Family-Based Immigration
The administration has pushed for legislation that would dismantle the family-based immigration system, by elimination of preference categories for the adult children, and brothers and sisters of US citizens—all members of the nuclear family. Naturalized US citizens from countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and parts of Africa use the family-based immigration system to reunite with their loved ones.
Labeling family reunification as “chain” migration, the administration has made reduction of the family system as one of the “four pillars” of its immigration reform package. Moreover, the administration has used the fate of DACA recipients as a bargaining chip to achieve reductions in family immigration. Fortunately, Congress has soundly rejected this approach. Unless the president drops this demand, however, it would prevent passage of the Dream Act.
The Use of Detention
While previous administrations have used immigrant detention as an enforcement tool, the Trump administration has also used it as a punitive tactic, with deleterious consequences for families, particularly women and children. One example is the change of policy toward pregnant women, who are now kept detained during their pregnancies, where they have less access to prenatal care and medical treatment. This policy has led to miscarriages among immigrant women and should be strongly opposed by all faith communities.
In addition, the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which prosecutes parents for crossing the border in search of safety, could lead to the detention of families for months as they await prosecution. If a parent is convicted of the misdemeanor of illegal entry and is sentenced to prison for up to a year, the separation of children from their mother or father would happen all over again.
To compound matters, the administration has eliminated community-based programs which would have provided humane alternatives to detention for families, such as the very effective Family Case Management Program, a model in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Catholic Charities provided support—housing, assistance, and legal representation–to families in a community setting.
The program is much less expensive than detention, and participants have a 99 percent appearance rate at asylum hearings. This program would be a perfect solution to the current dilemma facing the administration at the border, but the administration has refused to use it, since it would undermine their goal of deterring migration from Central America.
Ending Family Reunification for Refugees
One area in which the administration has done great damage is the US refugee program. The ceiling on refugee admissions was set at 45,000 for FY 2018, an all-time low, with less than half of that number gaining admission during the year. For FY 2019, the administration has set an even lower resettlement goal of 30,000.
Not only has this placed thousands of refugee families already approved for resettlement in danger, it keeps refugee families separated since refugees already in the United States are less likely to be able to successfully petition for their loved ones.
Moreover, the president’s travel ban, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, has kept Syrian families, including Christians, in danger. In fact, despite campaign pledges to increase the resettlement of Christians, the administration has reduced their resettlement by nearly two-thirds since taking office.
Families from other nations on the travel ban list, which consists of mostly Muslim-majority countries, will remain vulnerable. These family members are victims of terror imposed by their dictatorial governments and extremist groups, and are not themselves terrorists. By denying them protection, the United States fuels the narrative, spread by terrorist organizations, that it is hostile to Islam.
Finally, the administration has ended the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which permits unaccompanied children in danger from gangs in Central America to join their families in the United States legally. The program was successful in giving deserving children an option to come legally and safely to the United States to join their family members, instead of being forced to use smugglers to reach safety.
As members of faith communities and US citizens, we must wake up to the reality that immigrant families are at risk under this administration, regardless of their legal status. Even more disturbing, immigrant children are in the administration’s crosshairs, being used as leverage to enact harsh immigration policies into law. These policies are primarily impacting persons from poor, non-white regions of the world, such as Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
The response of the American public, particularly faith communities, over the cruelty of the family separation policy was a positive step. However, other harsh policies, such as the new public charge proposal, keep coming.
All people of faith, regardless of political affiliation, should heed the call and oppose immigration policies that adversely impact families.