The Department of Homeland Security is considering a policy that would separate mothers from their children when caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy would aim to curb the policy known as "catch and release."
On March 3, two DHS officials disclosed that the agency was considering holding women caught crossing the U.S. border indefinitely while waiting for their asylum hearings, while their children would be held in protective custody before being released to either a relative with legal citizenship or a state-sponsored guardian, Reuters reports.
The policy was discussed on Feb. 2 during a town hall lead by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum chief John Lafferty.
Under current U.S. policy, families that are caught crossing the border illegally are in most cases released from detention together to reside in the U.S. while awaiting their asylum hearing. Under the Obama administration, both mothers and their children could not be held in detention centers longer than 21 days.
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Critics of this policy have dubbed it "catch and release." In May 2016, National Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd stated while testifying before Congress that the practice was frustrating fellow border agents.
"What happens is if you are arrested in the United States and you ask for any sort of asylum, what we do is we will process you, and we will walk you right out our front door, give you a pat on the back and say, 'Welcome to the United States,'" Judd said, according to NPR. "And they're good to go."
In July 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DHS could not hold immigrant children indefinitely while they await their asylum sentencing. The ruling did not apply to their parents.
Between October 2016 and January 2017, roughly 54,000 children and their guardians were caught by border patrol agents. The minority of those caught crossing the border illegally are fleeing from Central America, which has seen a spike in gang violence.
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Ben Johnson, the director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, asserts that the U.S. should be making asylum easier for these undocumented immigrants.
"The violence that is driving these women and children out of their home countries has not subsided," Johnson said. "In many places, it has increased. And they need help."
Executive director Marielena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center believes that if the DHS were to separate mothers from their children who have fled from Central America, the children could potentially experience "lifelong psychological trauma."
Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute noted that holding mothers indefinitely would result in "a pretty rapid increase in the detention population... The question is really how much detention they can afford."
On Feb. 17, DHS Secretary John Kelly signed two memos proposing new policies for immigration enforcement. One of the proposals would make unaccompanied children caught at the border subject to deportation and would subject their parents to criminal prosecution if they had paid human traffickers.
In order to help their children make the potentially hazardous journey from Central America to the U.S., it has become common practice for parents to pay human traffickers to help transport them, McClatchy DC Bureau reports.