Inhumane Proposal to Separate Women and Children Fleeing Violence Will Cost U.S. Taxpayers

Earlier this week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly confirmed reports that he was considering a policy that would separate women and children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. If enacted, the policy would be both devastating for women and their children—many fleeing violence in Central America— and costly for the American taxpayer.  Under the proposal women would be kept in detention while applying for asylum and children would be put in protective custody. Currently, women and children are released from detention quickly as they wait for a decision on their case, in part, because of a federal appeals court ruling that prohibits keeping children in prolonged detention.

Last year, however, there was an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors and families with children fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. From October 2016 to January 2017, 54,147 families (typically defined as mothers traveling with their children) arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border with a vast majority from those three Central American nations. The three countries have continued to experience a surge in gang violence and organized crime along with impunity for perpetrators. Over the last three years on average, 88 percent of families passed their credible fear screening—a screening that determines if an asylum seeker has a credible fear of persecution. Women and girls in these countries  increasingly face the threat of sexual violence, forced prostitution, and gender-based violence by organized crime and gangs.

Women and children fleeing Central America have faced violence in their home country and along their journey. Separating traumatized mothers and children from one another will add to that trauma. In addition, placing children in protective custody will place more of a burden on our child welfare system. Plus, keeping women detained for the duration of their case will increase the number of people kept in detention, which poses increased costs for U.S. taxpayers. During FY2016, the United States spent on average $123 per day on an adult bed in detention and $342 per family unit per day with an annual budget of around $3 billion for detentions.  Maintaining the current policy—which keeps families together—is not only the right course of action, it’s the smart, fiscally prudent course to follow.

The potential policy comes as the Trump Administration pursues more aggressive immigration enforcement policies, including, for example, through new administrative directives. On Monday, President Trump signed a revised executive order (EO) on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” replacing the earlier controversial executive order on immigration, signed in January, that was blocked by a federal appeals court. The new order continues the ban for ninety days on travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen but Iraq is no longer included. Iraq’s removal from the list was requested by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster. It also replaced the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees with a 120-day ban. However, the new order retains a core element of the old one— slashing the total number of refugees to be admitted to the United States per year from around 110,000 to 50,000. As I have written before, since the United States is the largest resettlement country in the world, the decision to cut the total of number of refugees will both adversely affect women and have destabilizing effects globally, as it affects not only the U.S. resettlement infrastructure, but the refugee resettlement landscape worldwide.

*This post is cross-posted at cfr.org.

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Court Order Protects Women Refugees (For Now)

As I’ve discussed previously, President Trump Executive Order (EO), “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” had particularly grave consequences for women refugees. Under the EO, all refugees were suspended from entering the United States for 120 days, which adversely affected women in particular. The EO also suspended all citizens from seven targeted countries—Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen —from entering the United States, and it banned refugees from Syria indefinitely. Women refugees often flee sexual violence and other persecution, and without refugee protection, women are often stranded in refugee or temporary settlement camps where they face a heightened risk of sexual and physical violence.

In light of this, the nationwide injunction issued by a federal judge in Washington last week and the other day’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold that injunction are good news for women refugees. Under the injunction, the provision in Trump’s EO suspending refugee admissions is on hold for now, and refugees are once again allowed to enter the United States and seek resettlement as planned. However, President Trump has threatened to fight the decision, indicating he may appeal now to the Supreme Court.

While the Ninth Circuit opinion was not a full-fledged decision on the merits (as it was merely reviewing whether or not to lift the district court’s temporary restraining order), as Jen Daskal helpfully notes on Just Security, the court drew a number of important conclusions. First, while it found that the President’s power over immigration is entitled to substantial deference, the court rejected the Trump administration’s claim that this power is unreviewable, particularly when constitutional rights are at stake.  Second, the Ninth Circuit noted due process rights cover all persons in the United States, including aliens. Third, the court indicated its concerns that the EO is intended to disfavor Muslims, potentially violating the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses, but ultimately noted it would “reserve consideration of these claims” until the merits have been fully briefed.   Fourth, the court emphasized deep skepticism of the national security claims asserted by the government, noting that the administration has presented “no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” In fact, ten top national security experts from across parties and across several administrations filed a declaration with the court indicating that the Executive Order did not, in fact, achieve national security goals and may, in fact, undermine them.

Indeed, refugees scheduled to arrive in the United States have already undergone an intensive vetting process.

*This post is cross-posted at cfr.org.