Over the last few weeks, the Trump administration has continued its relentless crusade against immigrants by moving to dismantle important protections for immigrants with little input or oversight from Congress or the public. Though the changes made in the last few weeks have largely flown under the radar, they are a threat to our constitutional rights and will devastate people’s lives.
Just this week, the heads of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) wrote to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asking her to arrest, detain, and criminally prosecute all parents arriving at our border with their children — a move that will likely prosecute asylum seekers and separate thousands of families. This follows a move by Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month calling on federal prosecutors to implement a “zero tolerance” approach to criminal prosecution of migrants the government apprehends at the border. While Secretary Nielsen and other high-ranking officials claim that cases of family separation are rare, The New York Times documented over 700 cases of children taken from their parents, including more than 100 children under the age of 4.
The White House’s cruelty doesn’t end with family separation.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced it will end policies that prevent the needless detention of many immigrants, including refugees who have a right to make their case in court. This will further expand the mass detention of immigrants and compound existing widespread legal and constitutional violations in our immigration system. We, along with our coalition partners, are already challenging Trump’s decision to indefinitely lock up asylum-seekers instead of releasing them on parole — a key part of its new approach to immigration detention.
And on the heels of an administrative complaint, we filed with partner organizations, ICE revoked guidance that had previously limited the detention of pregnant women. Making matters worse, Trump signed a proclamation that will only further militarize the southern border, sending National Guard troops to assist with immigration enforcement. Beyond the militarization of the border, this unnecessary move is fiscally irresponsible, wasting $100,000 per year for each troop, even though border apprehensions are at historically low levels.
We are also witnessing larger trend by Attorney General Sessions to eviscerate the due process rights of immigrants. Under a new quota system, immigration judges will be required to complete an average of three cases per day, prioritizing numbers over justice. And Sessions continues his illegal attempts to cut funding from and threaten so-called sanctuary cities — localities that choose to prioritize community safety by disentangling their local criminal law enforcement activities from federal immigration law enforcement.
To break down the impact of all these changes, and how they’re part of Trump’s larger agenda, I talked to Madhuri Grewal, ACLU’s federal immigration policy counsel.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What real-life impact do these policies have on immigrants?
We hear politicians frame their policies around family values, but immigrant and mixed-status families seem to be missing. Right now, as a direct result of these policies and the incredible ramp-up in enforcement, the Trump administration is ripping apart families nationwide. And too many members of Congress are quietly allowing it to happen. The policy changes in the last few weeks are just a sliver of the cruel and arbitrary actions we’ve seen from Trump and this administration.
For example, in Tennessee — after the single largest workplace raid in a decade — over 500 kids were afraid to go to school. These families aren’t able to live their lives, and communities are shaken — including many conservative voters. Whether dropping off children at school; travelling by Greyhound bus or Amtrak train within 100 miles of any land or sea border; being a teenager days before senior prom; going to court, including as a witness or crime victim; traveling to the hospital for a surgery; or even standing on their own front lawn, immigrants are worried about being detained, deported, and separated from their families every single day.
ICE is even waiting to arrest parents leaving immigration interviews and spouses at marriage interviews—which are supposed to be first steps toward legalization, not deportation. No parent should have to teach their children what to do if ICE knocks on their door or if their parents are arrested.
It’s been attack after attack. Trump is sending a clear message that immigrants and people of color are not welcome in this country. And if they dare challenge these policies, immigrants are worried they will be retaliated against and face greater chances of deportation, just for being critical of ICE or Border Patrol.
Why is the Trump administration doing all of this?
These enforcement actions and policy changes further Trump’s ultimate goal of mass deportation. With these policy changes, it will be easier to round up immigrants, detain them, and limit their understanding of their basic rights or the process, often without time to find an attorney. Judges will be pressured to rush these cases through immigration courts. And those are for the cases that actually make it to an immigration judge because this administration is also looking for ways to make it easier to bypass the courtroom completely. And even if you are a naturalized citizen, you’re not necessarily safe.
On a big picture level, these policies attack our constitutional and moral values. We are living under an administration that does not care about fundamental constitutional principles, such as checks and balances or oversight from Congress. The Trump White House is taking the infrastructure of American communities — schools, government services, hospitals, travel — and weaponizing it against immigrants and communities of color.
It’s not just immigrants’ rights. The work is intersectional, and we are seeing so many other areas impacted. For example, border barriers — fences and walls — have devastating consequences for the environment and wildlife; the government controls the reproductive rights of immigrants in detention; and prosecutions for migration funnel more people of color into the criminal justice system, including incarceration, while generating massive profits for private prison companies.
How does Trump’s border wall fit in here?
In the spending bill approved by Congress last month, Trump got $1.6 billion for border wall and fence construction. Yet Trump remains fixated on building a massive border-wide wall despite the irreparable harms it would cause, including to the private lands in its path. He continues to distort the truth about conditions along the border, ignoring DHS’s own conclusion that the border has never been harder to cross undetected, and unjustifiably demonizing asylum-seekers fleeing persecution.
Trump’s narrative that our border is under attack is just not true. Border apprehensions are near all-time lows. We already have over 16,000 Border Patrol agents at the southwest border — so many that the average agent apprehends only two people per month, many of whom are families or children turning themselves in to seek protection. And we’ve just learned that CBP has been falsifying and inflating attacks on its agents, painting a phony picture of increased violence against Border Patrol agents when the real data demonstrates the opposite. It is clear that what we need is increased oversight and accountability for Border Patrol agents who act abusively — things like body-worn cameras — not military reinforcements or a wall.
The administration continues to ignore facts, data, and truth — in short, to lie — to vilify immigrants, foment fear-mongering, and waste taxpayer dollars on more border militarization, creating in one Republican congressman’s words, a “mini industrial complex syndrome.” At the same time, it conveniently glosses over its evisceration of due process and the Fourth Amendment, retaliation against dissenters, relentless attacks on immigrant families, and repeated attempts to evade congressional oversight and accountability.
What can people do about these attacks on immigrant communities?
The ACLU is fighting back: in the courts, in Congress and the states, and with coalition partners through national advocacy and grassroots organizing and actions.
Congress holds incredible oversight power and responsibility to make DHS accountable and hold Trump to our constitutional values. There should be a vocal majority in Congress calling for investigations of ICE and CBP. Indeed, just this week, conservative columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote, “[Abuse at ICE] is an issue ripe for more rigorous congressional oversight — even an independent commission to investigate charges of physical and sexual abuse in the ICE system.”
For the people reading this, it’s important to weigh in with members of Congress so they know you care about how they vote and what they say. More critically, Congress also funds DHS, so legislators can choose to limit how those funds are used. As Congress reviews its funding priorities for fiscal year 2019, tell your representatives that DHS’s budget is excessive, harmful, and not where you want your tax dollars going. We need your voices and your advocacy to help us resist Trump and this administration’s anti-immigrant policies.