I have prepared over 100 asylum cases. My clients have fled repressive regimes and deadly violence in countries such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Rwanda, Honduras, Yemen, and China. In 15 years of asylum practice, I have never once heard of government persecution as severe as taking away someone’s child, prosecuting the parent for a political crime, torturing the child and ending the parent-child relationship. But this is precisely what the United States has done to immigrants and asylum seekers from Central America in recent months.
If these parents and the estimated 2,300 children taken from them had fled to the United States from any number of other nations, theirs would be clear-cut cases for asylum. Instead, we’re the ones who inflicted state violence on them. They should all be granted asylum status here in the U.S.
To qualify for asylum, a person must show that a government is persecuting them on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a targeted group. Persecution is a term of art, generally meaning the infliction of physical harm. The more extreme examples I have seen in my practice include pretextual arrests, extrajudicial detention, beatings and rape. Some of my clients have been shot, one of them in the head. Several have been paralyzed or otherwise crippled. Others have been subjected to government-inflicted involuntary sterilizations and forced abortions. I have never had a client endure the pain of having the government permanently and forcibly take away their child.
“Some of my clients have been shot, one of them in the head. I have never had a client endure the pain of having the government permanently and forcibly take away their child.”
Let me underscore the brutality of that action. In many countries, when thugs take power, they inflict harm on others. Every person then has a choice to make: join the thugs or refuse to harm others. The morally correct choice is the harder one. The brave ones who refuse to be complicit ― such as my clients from El Salvador, Nepal, Haiti and Cameroon who were asked to make this very choice ― were met with the most dire consequences. If they escape, they forsake all they know in hopes that they will be safer in places unknown.
Clinging to the audacious hope that their children’s lives will be better, families flee to the U.S., the nation whose symbol is a Statue of Liberty and whose laws have welcomed millions seeking refuge. In the most cruel bait and switch, President Donald Trump ― aided by his attorney general and secretary of homeland security ― took those children away, stripping from their parents the very reason they risked so much.
They say the most unrelenting grief a person can experience is burying their child. Our country has inflicted this kind of pain on desperate parents. The very least we can do is grant them the right to stay here.
The separated children are also in harm’s way. Even for those who are well-cared for, experts expect children—the youngest is 5 months—who are forcibly separated from parents will have lasting mental health problems. And many are not even in safe places. Some detained kids are denied exercise and human touch, and some facilities have allegedly tied up and handcuffed children and medicated kids improperly and against their will.
Trump’s motivations for this and other anti-immigrant policies are no secret: He has called asylum seekers an “infestation” of criminals, rapists and liars. He and his officials insist, without evidence, that asylum seekers are “posing” as families in order to qualify for asylum.
These are the kinds of words and actions that totalitarian governments and extremist groups use against their enemies. Iran disparages its Christians. China imprisons Tibetans on trumped-up charges. Boko Haram kidnaps children for political ends. And now the United States does, too.
“Boko Haram kidnaps children for political ends. And now the United States does, too.”
Some will argue that asylum seekers forfeited their rights because they are “criminals.” First, they are not. Asylum is a legal right, afforded to all, “irrespective” of how they entered the country. Second, however poorly our government treats convicted felons, it does not imprison and traumatize their children in unknown locations. Prisons take care of and return the clothing a prisoner was wearing when they first arrived. The imprisoned immigrant parents are given no means to have their child returned when released or deported.
The separated families are political prisoners, tried in group trials, a scene more akin to kangaroo courts than our constitutional right to a jury. They are being tried for breaking a “law” that is newly targeting only one group. The criminal convictions are a sham of coerced pleas, a practice former attorneys general have denounced as a “radical departure” from any prior practice.
The remedy for the Trump administration’s illegal ― and immoral ― actions is not simply to stop family separations, and it certainly isn’t to lock entire families up indefinitely. The right thing to do is for Congress to grant asylum to every single person who has been wrongfully prosecuted and every member of a family that the U.S. government deliberately destroyed. According to Attorney General Jeff Sessions himself, 88 percent of asylum seekers at the border pass the first screening showing that they have been harmed by their own government. Now we know that 100 percent have been harmed by ours.
They all then should be released and reunited. The wrongfully deported returned. And all of them given legal status with the option to stay. Why would they stay? Because they have nowhere else to go, exiled from their home by persecution. And why must we let them? Because repairing our wrongs is the best and true showing of a strong democracy, the “more perfect union” that once made us the world’s beacon of hope. Giving the separated families amnesty is the first step to our own redemption.
Kari Hong is an assistant professor at Boston College. She has represented asylum seekers for 15 years.