President Trump’s Policy
The Ethical Culture Movement condemns in the strongest terms President Trump’s policy relating to the treatment of political asylum seekers and other immigrants entering the United States at the southern border. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is in accord with his abhorrent and racist scapegoating of immigrants and his aggressive strategy of divisiveness in order to sow political chaos, augment his immigration agenda, and appeal to his political base.
The centerpiece of this policy has been the evil practice of separating children, including infants, from their parents to serve as a deterrent directed at others seeking political asylum in the United States. This policy, unprecedented in American history since slavery, has generated a vociferous and broad-based protest, causing Trump to rescind the policy on June 20th. The reality of children ripped from their parents at the border by immigration agents has been heartbreaking and is unspeakably cruel. The majority of those seeking asylum are fleeing extraordinary violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, nations with the highest homicide rates on the globe. Despite Trump’s assertions that they are leaving their home countries for economic reasons or seek to game the American immigration system, they are fleeing for their lives. They have been traumatized by the threat of death and the dangerous thousand-mile journey through Mexico. They are confronted by terrorism on both ends, so to speak: certain death at the hands of vicious drug gangs and the terrorism enacted by the Trump administration, separating them from their children upon entry to the United States.
More than 2,300 children have been so separated from their parents. They have been kept in cages and makeshift shelters, including “tender age” facilities that house infants and babies. Many have been transported to the care of agencies thousands of miles from the border and their parents. In violation of democratic mores, and the principle of transparency, the locations of many of these shelters are unknown and the public and press are denied access.
No one concerned with the preservation of American values and committed to fundamental decency and humanity should be fooled. The policy itself, in accordance with the tenor of Trump’s presidency, has been based on lies and leaves in place pervasive violations of human rights and abhorrent practices.
Beyond the slander of immigrants in the most vulgar and dishonest terms (Trump has claimed they are “rapists and murders,” “animals” and violent criminals who endanger the safety of the American public) he has repeatedly asserted that they are breaking American law. This is blatantly false. Those seeking political asylum are acting in conformity with long-standing American legal norms. The United States has ratified the 1967 Protocol to 1951 Convention on Refugees, which places the nation in accordance with international law and the Convention that governs the rights and procedures pertaining to asylum seekers. The federal Refugee Law of 1980 further confirms American conformity with international norms. It has been long-standing American practice to admit those seeking asylum to enter the United States with an appropriate visa or without documentation. Once in the country, their status is adjudicated via a hearing before an immigration agent in cases of the former or by an immigration court with regard to the latter. Determination is made to either grant political asylum or prime the applicant for removal.
Trump’s policy through the mandatory incarceration of all those crossing the border has criminalized the asylum process, and as such has betrayed the defining American value of providing a safe haven for those experiencing a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their home countries. Trump’s policies have turned both the presence of asylum seekers, as well as immigrants without documents, from being a civil violation into a crime subject to criminal prosecution.
In previous years, parents arriving with children were detained together in family detention centers. Unaccompanied minors were most often placed with identified relatives. Under the Flores court ruling for 1997, which has undergone several iterations, unaccompanied minors could be detained for no more than 20 days and then released into the care of a relative or vetted guardian.
By rescinding the degree separating parents and children, it is likely that the Trump administration seeks to detain children with their parents in detention centers until their cases are brought before an immigration courts. This could be periods of many month or years, thus perpetuating the cruelty and trauma suffered by the most vulnerable. While Trump cannot abolish Flores, it is highly plausible that this is his end in view.
The rescission of the separation edict looks forward and is not grandfathered to include the 2,300 children already removed from their parents. Owing to the mercurial nature of his policies, the unification of these children is left uncertain. In many cases, their reuniting with their parents may take many months. In cases in which the deportation of parents is expedited and children are left in facilities in the United States, unification may take years, as the location of parents and children and bureaucratic complexities at state and federal levels impede the process. Numerous health experts affirm that trauma resulting from separation from their parents, and then extended for long periods of time, re-enforces the trauma already experienced from the violence adults and children have experienced which has made flight necessary, and can be far-reaching and life-long. Not only have Trump’s edits been cruel, they have been impulsive and ill planned,
Finally, Trump’s assault on immigrants and asylum seekers, as well as holding children hostage to his political interests is, as noted, a cynical and flagrantly immoral appeal to his constituency. It plays into his trope of the victimization of America and those Americans who feel that their status and economic stability are under threat. Yet, it is impossible to see how the lives of those in the American heartland will be improved by ripping traumatized children from their mothers. Much political favor is gained from the assertion that immigrants will deprive those already here of their jobs and hence economic security. This, as much else, is a lie and a canard. With an unemployment rate of only 3.8%, America needs an influx of more immigrants, not fewer. The economy is not a zero sum game. Immigrants and refugees bring new skills and energy that will strengthen the economy for all. We cannot let false facts be a rationale for xenophobia and shameful policy that leave us all diminished.
The American Ethical Union recommends that the Administration give the highest priority to the implementation of the following:
- Immediately cease criminal prosecution of political asylum seekers and other immigrants, with or without proper documents.
- End detention of political asylum seekers and other immigrants arriving with or without proper documentation, with few exceptions where criminal behavior is likely. After a detention for the briefest period to determine “credible fear,” that the asylum seeker or immigrant in question be released into the community pending an appearance before an immigration court to determine his or her status.
- Promote humane alternatives to detention through generous support of social service and non-profit agencies established to fulfill this function.
- Under no circumstances separate children arriving with their parents or other relatives from those family members.
- End mass expedited hearings of asylum seekers are ended. All persons slated to appear before an immigration court to determine his or her status must have sufficient time and resources to prepare his or her defense.
- Ensure that all such children are provided with adequate legal counsel. In many cases, children as young as five years old have appeared in immigration court unaided to assert their asylum claims. Such a condition is preposterous, surreal, makes a mockery of justice, and is a gross abuse of human rights.
- Immediately appropriate requisite funds to hire additional judges and the resources necessary to ensure that fairness and justice be realized in the immigration and asylum adjudication process. Currently only 350 immigration judges are serving to hear a backlog of more than 800,000 immigration cases.
- Have Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions rescind his recent decision narrowing the criteria under which an individual can apply for asylum including those fleeing violence perpetrated by private actors, such as drug gangs and perpetrators of domestic violence.
- Abolish the privatization of detention centers, which are often indistinguishable from prisons, and ensure that such centers meet humane standards with resources to meet the medical, educational, and recreational needs of those who are detained.
- Have the Administration, Congress, public officials, community leaders, indeed all Americans, through word, deed, and teaching reaffirm the central identity of the United States as a nation of immigrants and the preeminent ideal that America welcomes the stranger and gives refuge to those fleeing persecution.
Ethical Culture and Immigration
Ethical Culture has had a long and rich history in support of immigrants. Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, was himself an immigrant from Germany. The central ideal of Ethical Culture is respect for the dignity of all men, women, and children. This ideal has inspired the Movement’s passion for social justice and much of the Movement’s public history has been in support of immigrants. The Visiting Nurse Service, Ethical Culture’s first project, provided health care for the immigrant poor in New York’s Lower East Side. The Ethical Movement created settlement houses in New York, Philadelphia, and related institutions in St. Louis, exclusively devoted to the education and welfare of immigrants. The Ethical Culture Schools registered immigrant children among its first students. For decades Ethical Culture played a major role in the labor movement, lending its support to workers who came from Europe and were employed in factories in New York City and elsewhere. After World War II, programs were established with the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt to assist refugees who had escaped the War. A more recent expression of support is the Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition that for 13 years has provided a comprehensive range of humanitarian services for political asylum seekers, and provides a viable model for alternatives to detention.