ICE zero-tolerance policy sparks controversy amongst Americans


ICE police officers investigate people crossing the border.

Adam Jackman, Contributing Writer

For weeks over the summer, the news cycle was flooded with debate over the United States Southern border with Mexico.  Organizations like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) along with President Donald Trump were being criticized over the new zero-tolerance immigration policy.

This policy, instituted in April of 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice, prosecutes those who choose to illegally cross the United States Border.

“Illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  

The Department of Justice states that one of the motives behind this policy change was that from Mar. 2017 to Mar. 2018, there was a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings.  In addition, from Feb. 2018 to Mar. 2018, there was a 37 percent increase, marking the largest increase from month-to-month since 2011.  

Sessions himself also cited Congressional inability to “pass effective legislation that serves the national interest—that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our Southern border.”

This increase in illegal immigration has been a result of crisis in several Central American countries, specifically in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  Massive increases in population in urban city centers in these countries has contributed to poverty, in addition to heightened danger through gang violence. 

Most of the people looking to cross the borders are part of families. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was a 58 percent increase in the amount of families looking to cross the border from Oct. 2017 to May 2018.

According to CNN in 2017, while only 1,846 families are arriving illegally at the U.S. border from Mexico, over 18,000 families are arriving from each of the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 

The controversy over the zero-tolerance policy began when ICE began separating families at the southern border.  When a parent is prosecuted for a federal crime, they are supposed to be held in a federal prison.  Due to the 1997 Flores agreement, children cannot be held in a federal prison while undergoing court proceedings.  Thus, they must either be released into custody of a guardian or kept in a facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services.  These facilities have to uphold the standards of the Flores agreement, with adequate services for the children while they await the court’s decision.  

Many people argue that the zero-tolerance policy is illegal and immoral for separating innocent families, who are mainly seeking asylum in the United States.  The first part of the argument is an inaccurate statement because the separation of families is absolutely legal and necessary at this time at the southern border.  Most families crossing the border are coming illegally, including when they are asking for asylum.  

“It is not illegal to seek asylum. It is illegal to do so without entering through a port of entry without documentation,” said Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Jonathan Turley.   

Most undocumented immigrants, including families, seeking asylum are deported within two weeks of applying for asylum.  During former President Obama’s second term in 2013, 44 percent of all deportations were completed through this process.  

In cases where families are convicted of illegal crossings, the parents are subject for up to six months in jail.  The zero-tolerance policy is simply enforcing this criminal offense and trying those thought to be guilty in court.  The alternative to this policy is to allow families to stay together, and not criminally prosecute them under the law.  Instead, they would not be jailed and would be allowed to gain temporary asylum to the United States while their case is processed.

The problem with this policy is that when immigrants are given temporary asylum in the United States, they sometimes take advantage of this and start to create lives for themselves in the United States.  Once their case is processed, it is harder for them to be deported under federal immigration law. 

This leads to the breakdown of a border system as the country has seen increasing illegal immigration rates pointed out by the Department of Justice.  The only solution to keep families together while still enforcing the immigration laws of the United States would be to suspend the Flores agreement, which would allow children to stay in prison with their parents.  The Trump administration wants Congress to overturn the Flores agreement so the administration can keep families together in detention.

People who oppose the zero-tolerance policy also claim that President Trump is creating a tougher immigration policy out of fears of gangs and violence of people at the border, which is not an accurate representation of everybody crossing the border.  President Trump has falsely accused a large segment of the illegal immigrant population of “bringing death and destruction to the United States,” stating that many were part of gangs that “pour into and infest our country.” 

This is an extremely inaccurate statement because most immigrants are part of families or trying to leave crisis in Central America.  However, this does not mean that simply because they are not drug dealers, gang members, or immoral people, they should be granted admission or asylum in the United States. 

“An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal,” said California Senator and Trump critic Kamala Harris.  

However, according to Professor Turley, “Illegal entry into the United States has been prosecuted as a criminal matter for decades.”

While most immigrants coming over the border are part of families, that does not take away from the fact that 90 percent of heroin in the United States is coming over the Mexican border.  There are real consequences for not federally prosecuting illegal immigrants at the border in addition to the opioid epidemic, such as violent criminals being given asylum to the United States and human sex traffickers being given second and third chances to sneak people over the southern border, often raping and abusing those they help cross.

These are real and important issues that can be solved by prioritizing legal immigration and asylum, as well as federally prosecuting those that do break the law.  While some of President Trump’s rhetoric is inexcusable in his labeling of immigrants, his methods of securing the border promote both human safety and the security of U.S. citizens.  The Trump administration should continue to pursue the suspension of the Flores agreement, which will both keep families together and uphold the current immigration law at the border to prioritize legal immigration.