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Toxic US migration debate plumbs new depths

18 April 20190 comments

The prospects for asylum seekers and migrants in the US took a turn for the worse and the already toxic politics around the issue of migrants plumbed new depths this week when three things happened…

A conservative Republican Senator launched a new package of laws that will wind back America’s two-hundred-old year legal tradition of offering sanctuary to emigres, US Attorney General William Barr issued an order that that could keep thousands of asylum-seekers detained while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court, and, President Trump floated a punitive proposal to release detained illegal immigrants into so called ‘sanctuary cities’.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham revealed his legislative package and immigration plans that would change the country’s asylum laws in an effort to stem the influx of migrants crossing the southern border during an interview with Fox News.

“I’m tired of talking about this problem. I want to fix it. I think all Americans should want both parties to fix this problem,” Sen Graham said.

“The president has correctly identified the crisis at the border, now it’s time to have a legislative solution. You need to change our laws for this to stop,” he said.

As well as altering asylum laws to make harder for migrants to gain sanctuary, Sen Graham suggested changes to the 1997 Flores settlement, which prohibits the federal government from holding children in family detention centres for more than 20 days.

He also cited a “cork” in a federal trafficking law that prohibits immigration authorities from sending migrant children back to non-neighbouring countries.

“So the only place that we can send a child back is to Mexico and Canada. We need to be sending these kids back to Central America where they come from,” Sen Graham said.

President Trump has described the flow of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border as a national security and humanitarian crisis and has taken steps designed to curb what he calls illegal immigration.

He declared a national emergency in February to divert federal dollars to build a border wall, after Congress refused to provide the billions of dollars President Trump sought for the project, and he recently threatened to close the southern border, though he backed down from taking such action.

Recently, President Trump said he was giving “strong considerations” to plans “fix” the nation’s immigration laws.

But he will face opposition from Democrat sates and possibly in the federal courts, where some of his earlier anti-asylum seekers initiatives foundered.

President Trump has also said he is “strongly looking at” the idea of transporting migrants to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

‘Sanctuary cities’ are local government authorities who have passed laws protecting undocumented migrants from deportation or prosecution, despite US federal immigration law.

Major cities which have established infrastructure to support asylum seekers have dared the president to carry out his threat, but observers say it could place strains on smaller communities.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, one of the Democrats running for president in 2020, embraced the president’s threat to let detained illegal immigrants into sanctuary cities.

“You can’t threaten somebody with something they are not afraid of. And we are not afraid of diversity in the state of Washington. We relish it,” Governor Inslee said in a media interview.

Democrat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed those sentiments.

“Not only does hate have no home in Chicago, but, as a welcoming city, we would welcome these migrants with open arms, just as we welcomed Syrian refugees, just as we welcomed Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria and just as we welcome Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar,” he said.

Other Democrats were outraged by the proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the plan was “unworthy of the presidency”. She said rounding up immigrants and shipping them to sanctuary cities is “disrespectful.”

Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice has issued an order that could keep thousands of asylum-seekers detained while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court – a wait that often lasts months or years.

The ruling by Attorney General William Barr overturns a 2005 policy and directs immigration judges not to release migrants on bail once their cases have been approved for expedited removal proceedings – a status granted only after an applicant successfully establishes “a credible fear of persecution or torture” in the home country.

Instead, asylum-seekers will be detained until proceedings conclude. Only people granted parole by the Department of Homeland Security will be eligible for release, according to Barr’s order.

The ruling does not apply to family units or to unaccompanied children, who generally cannot be held in detention for more than 20 days under the terms of the Flores settlement.


But it is not clear how or where the Justice Department expects to detain more people.


Last month US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) said the increase in the number of family units and unaccompanied children has led to a “humanitarian crisis”.


A CPB official spoke of a “system-wide emergency in our processing and holding facilities”.


At the same time, the backlog of cases in immigration courts is at an all-time high at around 855,000 cases – an increase of more than 300,000 over the past year.


This means Attorney General Barr’s ruling could lead to thousands of asylum-seekers getting stuck in detention for years until their cases can be heard.

Migrant-rights advocates have already vowed to challenge the Trump administration’s move in court.



Laurie Nowell 
AMES Australia Senior Journalis