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.