House Republicans’ Immigration Bills Would Hurt Women and Children
At a time when national outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating families has reached a boiling point, and in the wake of the administration doubling down by effectively shutting U.S. doors to survivors of gender-based violence seeking asylum, this week, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives will bring up two anti-immigrant bills. These bills purport to help Dreamers but instead would only hurt women and children.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) Securing America’s Future Act, a comprehensive anti-immigrant bill, would, among other things, make historic cuts to future immigration and family reunification and criminalize the entire undocumented population. And House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Border Security and Immigration Reform Act is far from the “compromise” legislation that people such as the House Freedom Caucus chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) have made it out to be: It includes many of these same provisions, including cuts to future immigration and more than $25 billion to build things such as an unnecessary and harmful wall along the United States’ southern border.
Additionally, the Ryan bill includes a complicated points system detailing which individuals eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) can access permanent residence sooner and which recipients may have to wait years, if not decades. Because the points system is heavily weighted toward education and years of employment, the bill will disproportionately affect mothers and other caregivers, primarily women, managing or forgoing education and/or career advancement while caring for their loved ones.
Even more galling, both bills will slash protections for children and other asylum seekers. This news comes just a week after the world learned of the death by suicide of Marco Antonio Muñoz after he was forcibly separated from his wife and child, as well as after reports that federal agents ripped a breastfeeding baby away from her mother in detention.
Cutting protections for asylum seekers and incarcerating children
These changes will affect women and children in a number of ways. First, the bills would make it harder for people seeking asylum in the country to find protection. Given the high levels of gender-based violence against women and children, closing the doors to asylum means locking women and children out of safety. Save the Children recently found that Honduras has the highest rate of child homicides in the world, closely followed by El Salvador and Guatemala. There are also high levels of femicides in the region, which the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and others have catalogued.
Second, neither bill would prevent children from being separated from their parents, since both are silent on the underlying “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone coming to the border without status, including asylum seekers and parents.* Children cannot be incarcerated in criminal jails with their parents, so as long as the administration continues to prosecute parents for seeking asylum, it will continue to separate families.
Supporters of the Ryan bill have argued that the legislation would end the Trump administration’s policy of family separation, but that bill—and the Goodlatte bill, which contains identical language—will only make it easier for the government to lock up children with their parents in detention, while also eliminating basic protections for detained children. Both bills seek to undo the Flores settlement, a 1997 consent agreement signed by the federal government after advocates sued the government over its treatment of children in custody.
Policymakers such as Speaker Ryan and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have tried to deflect blame from the administration for choosing to separate families by arguing that Flores mandates the separation of children from their parents. In actuality, Flores simply sets out a common-sense set of criteria for protecting children, including keeping them in the least restrictive setting possible—for example, not in hardened jail cells—and releasing them as soon as possible to an appropriate custodian. By seizing on Flores, they are instead attempting to revoke basic protections for children, so that children as young as infants can be held in prolonged government custody without adequate safeguards. As the Women’s Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service have found, “family detention cannot be carried out humanely,” with widespread psychological and physical harms to children in detention.
Protecting children without family separation or family detention is eminently possible. The Family Case Management Program—which the Trump administration ended in June 2017 but could and should bring back—allowed families to be kept together and released into communities, where they received help with housing, schooling, connections to legal counsel, and more. This program has been shown to be 99 percent effective among participants appearing for check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and for court hearings.
As articulated in leaked documents by top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, formal DHS and Department of Justice memoranda, and the public statements of the attorney general, the Trump administration alone created this policy of family separation. President Donald Trump could end this practice today if he wanted to, without any legislation. As The Washington Post reported this weekend, however, he views the policy as “a negotiating tool” to win a host of anti-immigrant legislative concessions.
Just a week ago, it seemed possible that moderate House Republicans, along with every Democrat in the House, were gathering enough signatures to make a discharge petition happen. This would have forced a vote on four bills, including two—the Dream Act and the USA Act—which were bipartisan and which focused on protecting Dreamers. Instead, the moderate members of the majority caved to the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, and now the House will be voting exclusively on partisan bills that will only exacerbate the current challenges brought on by the administration’s family separation policy. Members of Congress should reject these bills and get back to the business at hand: a bipartisan plan to put Dreamers on a pathway to citizenship.
And while the administration should reverse its policies that have already led to the forced separation of nearly 2,500 children in just a six-week period, Congress should take up legislation such as S. 3036, the Keep Families Together Act. Such a policy would similarly bring an end to this “cruel” and “immoral” policy.
Philip E. Wolgin is the managing director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress. Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is a senior policy analyst of Immigration Policy at the Center. The authors thank Tom Jawetz for his help in drafting this column.
* Author’s note: After advocates and multiple news outlets criticized Speaker Ryan for claiming that his legislation would end family separation even though it does nothing of the sort, reports are that both it and the Goodlatte bill may be changed to address family separation, perhaps expanding the government’s authority to detain minor children together with a parent in federal jails and prisons. Such a move would only further expose children to harm.
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Philip E. Wolgin
Managing Director, Immigration Policy
Director of Research, Immigration Policy