Defending the border by pulling children from the arms of their parents is brutal, immoral and un-American. That will be the upshot of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s plan to immediately detain and prosecute everyone - including asylum-seekers and parents with children - caught trying to cross illegally into the U.S.
Illegal immigration is wrong, and the government is right to seek to curb it. But this proposal, both cruel and unnecessary, is not the way.
Its rationale strike many as reasonable. After all, if illegal immigration is wrong, why not detain and prosecute the violators? Leave nobody in any doubt about the policy, including the regrettable fact that families will be broken up, and you’ll deter people from trying in the first place. And by the way, enforcing the law often breaks up families: Rob a bank, and you should expect to be separated from your children.
Yet Sessions’s policy is both disproportionate and self-defeating. There’s no sudden illegal-immigration crisis: Apprehensions at the southwestern border are near historic lows. And there are much more effective ways of addressing the issue.
It’s true that many of those released with pending immigration cases never show up for their court dates, vanishing into the underground economy.
But the right response is to make the system work faster, so that those caught entering illegally can be promptly turned away - rather than detained for lengthy stays or released pending a trial date.
A blanket prosecution strategy, on the other hand, will swamp courts and detention centers with criminal cases, making it harder to remove people quickly. Far better to rely on civil proceedings, bolstered with resources to make them work more efficiently. Hire more judges and clerks for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, bring the Board of Immigration Appeals up to its full complement, and drag the system’s paper filing system into the 21st century. Such measures would speed cases, expediting removals of unqualified families while granting certainty more quickly to those who can stay.
If the Trump administration were smart, it would also boost its support for Central America’s efforts at reform and economic development - a far more cost-effective investment than the $30,000 to $50,000 it spends on each migrant detained at the border.
To be sure, such measures are no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. The U.S. economy needs a visa system that addresses its demand for skilled labor.
The main thing is simple: Enforcing the laws on immigration need not and should not extend to separating children from their parents.