Let’s become that welcoming ‘nation of immigrants’ again

  • The Statue of Liberty in January 2018. Associated Press file photo

Published: 1/8/2019 9:37:08 AM
Modified: 1/8/2019 9:37:13 AM

Can’t we just move the Statue of Liberty to the southern border? Perhaps that symbol of welcome to our “nation of immigrants” would lead to more humane treatment of those seeking to enter our country for a better life.

Under our current president’s zenophobic policies, children are dying and families are being mistreated as they are taken into custody at the border. The Trump administration’s fixation on keeping out immigrants from “shithole countries,” as he put it, has led to tactics that are totally inappropriate for a nation governed from a “shining city on a hill.”

The general approach seems to be intimidation and bullying at the border to discourage future would-be migrants and asylum seekers — an approach to adversaries that our president employs all too often.

First, it was separating migrant children from their parents, with no real plan to re-unite them. That was an inhumane policy, something you can only imagine conceived by an immature, cold-hearted 30-something with too little experience in this world.

More recently, the deaths of two migrant children in just over two weeks raised strong new doubts about the ability of U.S. border authorities to care for the thousands of minors arriving as part of a surge of families trying to enter the country. These are not hardened drug dealers and terrorists for whom you might have little sympathy or concern.

An 8-year-old boy identified by Guatemalan officials as Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever. The cause is under investigation, as is the death Dec. 8 of another Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal.

Incoming U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat elected last month to represent El Paso in Congress, called the deaths “a real failure here that we all need to reckon with.”

The U.S. government’s system for detaining migrants crossing the border is severely overtaxed as the U.S. is seeing a sharp rise in families with children trying to escape crime and poverty in their home countries.

The president has wisely kept his mouth shut about the deaths, leaving it to Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to blame “a system that prevents parents who bring their children on a dangerous illegal journey from facing consequences for their actions.” Her department argues that it must detain more people to discourage other Central American families from trying to migrate.

In the wake of the deaths, Nielsen asked the Coast Guard to study Custom and Border Patrol’s medical programs and announced a “more thorough” assessment of all children who enter the agency’s custody. That’s good to see now, but this extra attention at the border to the care of parents and children seeking asylum should have been in place before now. We should be spending our resources keeping people safe while we assess their claims. Instead, the message flowing from the White House has been about making it unpleasant, even dangerous, to seek help in America — even though it is legal under international law to seek asylum.

Do we really want to send a message by tearing apart families and allowing children to die from neglect? We can’t imagine that’s the country any of us wants America to be — regardless of our stand on immigration policy.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in the agency’s defense that CBP has more than 1,500 emergency medical technicians on staff and that officers are taking dozens of sick children to hospitals every day.

“This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence,” McAleenan told “CBS This Morning” of the two child deaths. “It’s been more than a decade since we’ve had a child pass away anywhere in a CBP process, so this is just devastating for us.”

According to CBP statistics, border agents detained 5,283 children unaccompanied by a parent in November alone. Agents last month also apprehended 25,172 “family units.”

For that very reason, we think the administration needs to reorder its priorities, because even one child dying under our care — let alone two — is too much if it’s because we aren’t investing in their care, but instead arguing over a wall and looking for cruel ways to discourage migration.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who sits on a key subcommittee overseeing border funding, said he has pushed to fund more alternatives to detention such as ankle monitors, which he said could have been assigned to Felipe’s father.

He said Trump’s administration has prioritized a border wall — the subject of the partial government shutdown since last week — over investing in CBP checkpoints that have long needed attention.

“They’re not set up to hold people for a long time,” Cuellar said. “There’s so much money that the wall sucks up that it’s hard to address some of the other issues. I wish the administration would understand that.”

We do, too.

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