Washington D.C., May 16, 2018 / 11:54 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Federal officials are evaluating U.S. military bases as temporary shelters for immigrant children who will be separated from their parents after crossing the border illegally under a new Trump administration policy.
While final decisions have not yet been made, the Washington Post reports that Department of Health and Human Services officials are visiting military bases in Texas and Arkansas to examine their suitability for housing children.
About 100 shelters currently exist, but they are close to capacity, and it is estimated that thousands of additional children could be placed in government care under the new immigration policy, the Wall Street Journal says.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings on May 7. The goal is for “100 percent” of those who cross the border illegally to face charges of “improper entry by an alien,” which can result in up to six months in prison.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said, according to National Public Radio. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”
Under previous practice, people caught illegally crossing the border were returned to Mexico after a guilty plea and a brief detention. The violation is a misdemeanor under federal law.
With parts of Central America plagued by drug and gang violence, illegal border crossings in the U.S. increasingly consist of families or unaccompanied minors. While adults can be detained in immigration jails, the federal government is prohibited from holding immigrant children in jails.
Military bases may be used to shelter children whom the government has separated from their families, as well as unaccompanied minors. The children will receive foster care through the Department of Health and Human Services.
A department official said that the average time of custody for children in HHS care is 45 days, and 85 percent of children are released to a parent of adult relative in the U.S., the Washington Post reports.
Military bases were previously used to house children for several months during the child migrant crisis of 2014, when other resources were exhausted.
Ashley Feasley, director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA May 10 that the policy change will “erode judicial efficiency, taking away resources to prosecute the most dangerous, in favor of prosecuting every parent.” The new policy could cost up to $620 per night to detain a family of one parent and two children.
Furthermore, she said, entering the border with one’s child is not automatically an instance of child smuggling.
“Many of these families are willingly turning themselves over to Border Patrol. They are not hiding. They are asking for protection, they are vulnerable and looking for safety,” she said.
Under the zero tolerance policy, immigrants detained at the border could receive federal criminal convictions even if they have valid asylum claims and are judged to have a right to stay in the U.S., CNN reports.
Intentionally increasing forced family separations at the border “is inhumane and goes against our Catholic values and the sanctity of the family,” Feasley said.
Family separation is “extremely traumatic” for children to experience, especially after a lengthy, stressful trip to the U.S. and possible traumatic experiences in Central America, she said. Very young children have been separated and left with strangers, many of whom do not speak their language.
“Then these children are put into shelter facilities which are confined spaces. The experience is doubly traumatizing,” she continued. “The American Academy of Pediatrics has cautioned against the long lasting emotional trauma and harm that separation can cause children.”
Feasley also warned that the new policy does not address “the pervasive root causes of migration,” such as state- or community-sanctioned violence, poverty, forced recruitment into gangs, lack of educational opportunity, and domestic abuse.
She said that policy solutions should consider those factors, and that Catholics in the pews should “remember the human dignity of all families and children who arrive, and look to assist these families in productive ways that help them comply with our immigration laws – ensuring that they know their rights and responsibilities in this country.”