As an American immigration lawyer, I spent a morning last month at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales, Mexico. I met with Central American asylum seekers fleeing from violence, and gave them more information about the asylum process in the United States.
I first did a tally of all of the migrants who were there: Nearly 30 adults, 30 children with one or both of their parents, and four unaccompanied minors. Those at the front of the line told me they had arrived four days earlier and had been sleeping on the ground ever since.
Among other things, I looked parents in the eye and, with indescribable shame, warned them about potential family separation from their children. This has been intensified by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy” at the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy states that those who cross the border unlawfully will be prosecuted — and that children may be separated from their parents as a result.
It’s a terrifying warning that must be given to fearful families.
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The full impact was particularly in evidence during a 13-day period last month when 638 parents who crossed the border with 658 minor children were prosecuted under this policy.
But the warning also applied to the families I met who were waiting their turn in line in Nogales. There have been a number of documented family separation cases even after families presented themselves legally at a port of entry.
Sessions and President Trump are erroneously leveraging the argument that “the law” is responsible for their own administration-enacted policies such as family separation on the border. In actuality, the attorney general and the president are using the legality argument as a guise to justify their inhumane immigration policies — and to increase immigrant detention and deterrence. They assume that if they posit a particular policy as being legal, even if there is no law requiring that policy, the majority of the American people will follow.
We Americans must also remember that legality is not equivalent to morality. I have engaged in conversations and witnessed many other discussions where proponents of immigration policies such as “zero tolerance” cite the illegality of an individual’s situation — claiming they get what they deserve for not doing it the “right way.”.
But what is the “right way”? These proponents argue that the right thing to do is the legal thing to do. But what is legal is certainly not always right, or moral.
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American immigration law has a long history of glaringly obvious xenophobic legislation and precedent. Numerous policies have intentionally excluded particular ethnic groups:.
►The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. This was the first law created to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. It wasn’t repealed until 1943. And the U.S. Senate did not issue an apology until 2011.
►The Immigration Act/National Origins Act of 1924 banned all immigrants from Asia — including Thailand, where my mother immigrated from.
►Asian exclusion ended with the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, but racial quotas were still assigned to all Asian immigrants. This quota system did not end until the Immigration Act of 1965.
The basic purpose of these immigration acts, and many others like it, was to preserve a white and homogeneous United States. This systematic oppression and exclusion of immigrants has been legal. But does that make it right or moral?
With every single U.S. Policy such as Sessions’ “zero tolerance,” we must ask ourselves: What is the real motivation of the policy? How exactly will it affect those targeted? And is it just or unjust as measured by moral law?
If it is unjust, it is true we have a moral responsibility to counteract. And the first step is to immediately vote out those who are responsible for creating them — and their enablers.
Melanie Gleason is an immigrant rights lawyer and founder of Attorney on the Move, a pro bono project for asylum seekers.