June 21, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Theresa Brown

Deep Dish - Family Separation and US Immigration

Until Wednesday, family separations were part of the Trump administration's zero tolerance response to illegal immigration. The Bipartisan Policy Center's Theresa Brown breaks down how we got there, why migrants risk so much to enter the United States, and what else can be done to deal with migrant flows. 



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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish host Brian Hanson and I just want to provide a quick note before this episode begins. We taped this episode just prior to President Trump's signing of an executive order that ended the separation of families at the US border. In this episode we intentionally tried to frame recent events in terms of a broader perspective on US immigration policy, both where we are today and where we are going. And we believe that the content continues to be very relevant and useful for all of us as we seek to understand US immigration debates.

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about US Immigration policy in the context of the Trump administration's zero tolerance forced family separation. I'm joined today by Theresa Brown who is the Director of Immigration Policy at the Bi-partisan Policy Center, and she is also co-author of a report that Chicago council did together with the Bi-partisan Policy Center called Balancing Priorities Immigration, National Security, and Public Safety. Welcome Theresa, it's great to have you here.

Theresa Brown: Thank you, it's good to be here.

Brian Hanson: Theresa we're talking today in the context of a new policy by the Trump administration, a zero tolerance policy which is resulting in the first separation of families and children from parents and relatives that they're coming over the US border with. This is an incredibly important issue, it's loaded with moral questions that are being hotly debated. Where I would like to take this conversation is to the broader policy context of what this administration is trying to accomplish with US immigration policy, the context in which this set of events is playing out, and then also talk about what kinds of pathways there are forward. What we do know in this context is that President Trump has been very upfront from the beginning about wanting to reduce illegal immigration into the United States. So I want to start with the question of, is this zero tolerance policy and the forced separation policy, will that achieve the stated goals of the administration and reducing illegal immigration?

Theresa Brown: I think somewhat that remains to be seen, it's not been in place that long. We didn't see in the last month any sharp declines and so we have to sort of wait and see. It does take a little time for these policies to essentially make their way back through the immigration chain to the sending countries. But I think the bigger question that the United States right now is, are we comfortable with this as the means of trying to reduce illegal immigration? And I think what we're seeing in terms of the blow back and the pushback against the administration of this is, no the United States is not comfortable with this as a means of reducing illegal immigration, they want to find other solutions.

Brian Hanson: And what are those other solutions, if it's not this what could be done?

Theresa Brown: Well there's a lot of things that could be done. This administration however, does tend to focus on this idea of deterrents. That we want to deter people from making the trip in the first place, even if they're coming for asylum. And so the efforts that they're trying to do even before this family separation or zero tolerance policy was increasing detention. We have been doing prosecutions of arrivals between the points of entry for quite some time they ramped that up. They're trying to restrict the availability of asylum. They want to do more detention, they want to detain people until their cases can be heard because they believe that releasing them into the country encourages more immigration. The problem with a deterrents only strategy is that there a lot of reasons why migrants decide to come to the United States, and not all of them have to do with the challenge of actually getting into the United States or how difficult it might be once they arrive. A lot of them have to do with factors in their home country, and we're not doing anything to address that.

Theresa Brown: The other thing is that even if we do want to look at our own systems one of the biggest bottlenecks if you will in processing people who arrive at the border is the backlog in immigration courts. If we were to put as many resources into increasing the immigration court system, adding judges and courts, and finding ways to speed up that process or make it fair and efficient we wouldn't have to release people in the country for a couple of years until they're cases are heard. So I think there are lot of other things that can be done aside from this just deterrents policy that would probably have more impact on the overall migration decisions.

Brian Hanson: So I want to jump in on those because you've opened up two really important points. Let me start with this deterrents point. One of the things about deterrents is the deterrent threat has to be worse than what is motivating people to leave and try to enter the United States. Why are people coming up here and is this kind of threat actually more threatening to them than what they're facing at home that causes them to head to the US?

Theresa Brown: To answer that question I want to back up a couple of decades. Our system of how we manage undocumented immigration, people who arrive illegally at the United States Mexico border for decades has been based on the fact that the majority of people arriving were Mexican. And by being Mexican we could literally send them right back over the border, we didn't have to have a robust process inside the country to deal with people because we could return them fairly quickly. And for most of our history that's exactly what we did.

Theresa Brown: Starting in the early 2000's under the Bush administration there was a conscious effort made because many of those people turned right back across the border would return, they'd just try to come back it was called recidivism. And the government decided they wanted to reduce those recidivism rates so they started to do some other things. They started to prosecute people for illegal entry, something called Operation Streamline. They decided to detain people and they instituted something called Expedited Removal, which meant that rather than just returning him over a border without any future immigration consequences by having this prosecution and expedited removal they now suffered immigration consequences should they ever try to come back illegally. And they also instituted things like deporting people not at the place they came in but at other parts of the border to try to sever their connection to their smugglers. Or returning them back to the interior of Mexico so it'd be a long trip to come back. All of those things did reduce immediate recidivism rates from Mexico but there were other changes that gradually reduced the migration from Mexico over time. Including just the increase in the border patrol, the recession in the United States, changes in Mexican economy and demographics.

Theresa Brown: Then what happened and what we saw beginning in the early 2010's is an increasing flow from Central America. This is a different migrant stream, the people coming from Central America are coming for different reasons than the traditional Mexican immigrants. They're coming yes because of poverty and looking for opportunity but probably more so they're coming because there's serious crime in their countries. They are fearful of the criminal elements and the gangs. They are suffering especially for the women domestic violence and abuse systems that are tolerated in those countries. So, these are stronger incentives if you will to leave where you are then I think our traditional migrant experience has been. And so, you are absolutely right, our traditional efforts at deterrents, which might have worked fairly well against a purely sort of economic migrant strain from Mexico are going to be a lot less effective when the factors that are pushing people to move are much more serious. And because they're coming all the way from Central America, if they manage to make it to the US Mexico border they're going to be more persistent in trying to stay because the costs of going back and trying again would be so large.

Theresa Brown: I think what we have to do is rethink not only our efforts at deterrents if deterrents is what we want to try to do, but also rethink our system for processing people who arrive because we can't just send Central Americans back over the border. We have other processes even if they were subject to some of these expedited processes and weren't sent before an immigration judge, we can't just send them back to Mexico, Mexico doesn't have to take them, we have to deport them back to their countries, that entails some time for transportation, travel documents, arrangements with the home countries, etc.

Brian Hanson: I think that's very helpful and I'm glad you put this particular moment into a broader historical context. The other point that you had introduced earlier that I wanted to touch on was the back log of cases, of asylum cases here in the United States. I understand it's something like 600,000 if I'm right on the number of cases that are backlogged. And my understanding is one of the reasons for the detention is because there's such a big backlog it takes a long time to even hear these cases. So what to do with the people who tried to enter before their claims to asylum can even be adjudicated? Is this part of the challenge and if so what can be done?

Theresa Brown: It is part of the challenge and as you said this administration wants to solve that by detaining people until their cases are heard, which can be an average of two or more years. So think about this again, put yourself in the migrants' situation. A migrant who is fleeing what they believe is untenable situation that's likely to result in their death or the death of their child or loved one, flees the country, seeks out refuge in America, which they have been told and believe all their lives is still a place of refuge. And they have heard from previous people who have come that yes you'll be arrested, you'll be detained, but eventually you'll be given a letter and let loose in the country. You're supposed to go to an immigration court in a couple of years but you have two years in which to figure out how to stay. And that's exactly how they think about it, they think about it in those terms. Well, I don't have a guarantee they'll be able to say but in two years I'm sure I can figure something out.

Theresa Brown: The backlog is and the government says ... this and I don't disagree with them, the backlog and the delay can be an incentive or at least it's not a deterrent for people to arrive. If we were to find some way to clear out that backlog, allow people to state their claim if they are applying for asylum before an immigration judge within a matter of weeks or a couple of months. And they would have a decision of whether they could stay or not very quickly. And those who could stay would be allow in and those who could not would be returned fairly quickly. I think that would change that migrant's thought process more than detention, more than this sort of cruelty that we're trying to put people through as a means of deterrents. And we would allow people to have their day in court, they would be able to plead their case. So I think that's where we could make if you will, the most bang for our US government resources buck is by fixing that part of the process.

Brian Hanson: And are there proposals to do that currently part of the debate being forwarded by either party?

Theresa Brown: Only recently within the last 24 hours there's been a proposal by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to add a couple of hundred immigration judges to the backlog. We've done some of the back of the envelope calculations, we don't think that would make much of a dent but it's the first sort of proposal that addresses that piece of the puzzle. The administration on its own Jeff Sessions the Attorney General has tried to expedite the processing of cases in the backlog by ordering immigration judges to have a quota of cases they must complete each year, and limiting the amount of time that each case can go on. Advocates have pushed back on that saying it's actually limiting the ability of people to really make a serious try at their case, and it's unclear that it's going to have that much of an impact on the backlog either, but I think we do need some more proposals and some more thought put into what can be done with that part of the system.

Brian Hanson: As we close question I'd like to ask is, some people have said that the Trump administration is using this policy for separation as a bargaining chip in order to negotiate a bigger deal on immigration. We know that the majority leader in the Senate and the Speaker of the House are working with their caucuses to put something together legislatively. Perhaps just to address this specific issue, but more broadly as somebody who look at immigration in a bi-partisan way and has a strong sense of where their support within the parties, is there an outcome which could be acceptable to Trump administration, Republican in Congress, maybe some Democratic support, is there a bi-partisan resolution to this?

Theresa Brown: I think there can be and I think it's going to require all parties to make some hard choices and concessions. The President has turned down several bi-partisan deals that have happened before on the Dreamers and border security in part because he didn't get everything he wanted in them. In fact, Democrats have also not supported some bi-partisan compromises because it didn't have everything that they wanted or went farther on enforcement then they were willing. There is a big divide, it's a pretty big gap, but it can be closed if people are willing to sort of go there. And I think they have to sort of change the calculus that doing nothing and blaming the other side is more politically viable for them than actually making hard choices and getting something done. And that's where we have been for the last couple of decades actually.

Brian Hanson: Well Theresa thanks so much for joining us and putting today's debate into a broader context, and also ending with a sense of a possible way forward. Really appreciate you coming on.

Theresa Brown: Great thanks so much.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder the opinions you heard today belong to the people that express them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. And if you like the show please let us know by taping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you learn to podcasts, and if you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode please tap the share button and send it to them as well. If you have any questions about anything you heard today or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance and submit questions for upcoming guests please join our Facebook group Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our Audio Engineer is Andy Zarnecky. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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