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Don’t Play Trump’s Hostage Game With Migrants

It’s the most predictable plot line of all time: President Trump creates an immigration crisis, tries to negotiate a deal with Congress, throws a fit on Twitter, and then blames Democrats for the entire mess. Each time he’s set this sequence of events in motion, immigrants bear the consequences. Democrats should recognize the pattern repeating itself once again, and should not rely on Trump’s promises to fix the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. 

The latest victims of Trump’s cruelty include the most vulnerable of all: children, toddlers, and infants, who are being detained in concentration camps. These facilities are inhumane and unsanitary—infested with lice and influenza, ill-equipped even to keep detained children properly bathed. 

Trump created this crisis. In the most simplistic terms, migrants who presented themselves at the border to seek asylum were previously able to undergo “credible fear” interviews with DHS officials. If they established legitimate asylum claims they were given their day in court, before immigration judges. Migrants were also able to apply for bond hearings which gave them the ability to be released from detention while their cases were pending. 

The Trump administration has changed most of these procedures, rendering the highest number of detained immigrants in U.S. history—a whopping 50,000 people, including 15,000 children. 

 Earlier this year the Trump administration implemented its controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy which forced migrants to await immigration court hearings on the Mexico side of the southern border. This created logistical and security nightmares, which prompted a federal judge to temporarily block the policy. But while that lawsuit makes its way through the courts, it has driven an increase in the number of migrants who have opted not to present themselves at ports of entry and have instead risked their lives to cross illegally in the hope of being detained and making asylum cases within the U.S. This isn’t hyperbole: On Sunday, Border Patrol happened upon the bodies of a 20-year old woman, two infants and a toddler, just south of McAllen, TX. A tragedy that could have been avoided. 

In April, Attorney General William Barr announced that migrants who cross illegally will no longer be able to request bond hearings, contributing to the overcrowding and deteriorating conditions of detention centers. The Trump administration has defended this policy by asserting that immigrants fail to appear in court once they are released. This is false. DOJ statistics show that 89 percent of all asylum seekers attend their final court hearings. The percentage jumps to 98 percent when families and unaccompanied minors have access to legal representation. Relatedly, an Obama era program that allowed asylum seekers to stay with family members while awaiting resulted in nearly 100 percent compliance. The Trump administration canceled that program two years ago. Trump didn’t do this because he had to, he did it because he wanted to. 

We simply have too many people in detention and not nearly enough resources to process their claims. At the very least we should provide people in U.S. government custody with humane conditions. Immigration detention should end altogether, but while we debate and establish a better system, these people need our help today. Immigrants deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. All immigrants deserve this—not just some immigrants at the expense of others. 

Last week Trump announced that ICE had planned dragnet-style operations across 10 cities which would target families and individuals with final orders of deportation. At the last hour, and “at the request of Democrats,” Trump wrote in a tweet, “I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!” 

We saw a similar scenario play out in September 2017 when President Trump rescinded DACA. It was his administration that ended the program which provided young undocumented people with two-year work permits and protection from deportation. He then gave Congress six months to “legalize DACA.” He wrote in the same Tweet, “If they can’t, I will revisit this issue.” But it has now been 20 months since he threw the fate of 700,000 DACA recipients into uncertainty. Trump has failed to strike a compromise, has walked away from several deals, and has used DACA recipients as bargaining chips to get funding for a wall along the southern border. Trump was never interested in creating a permanent solution for Dreamers. He was only interested in how he could use the suffering of immigrants to appease his base and deliver on one of his most deplorable promises. 

What he is doing today is no less extortionate. Trump is using the threat of mass deportations, including of parents with citizen children, to force Democrats to tighten already fragile asylum laws. Those changes should be part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform package, where Democrats and Republicans reciprocate each other’s concessions. They should not be ransom.

Trump’s latest Twitter fit has rightly made progressive Democrats skeptical of a deal to provide $4.5 billion to improve the horrendous conditions at the camps where children are getting sick, and have no education, or even access to basic necessities like soap and toothbrushes.

The Senate has already passed a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package, but the legislation doesn’t adequately spell out how the administration must spend the money, which has raised concerns that officials might spend it on ramped up detention and deportation of more immigrants. There would thus be little to stop Trump from using the funds to punish migrants if Congress refuses to pass the changes to asylum law he’s demanded. He’s already said that deportations raids will resume in two weeks. 

House Democrats have rightly sought to attach provisions that would ensure the funds are not used to further Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Currently, their bill allows for unannounced visits from members of Congress to detention facilities, and calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to report deaths of children in custody to Congress within 24 hours to Congress. More is needed. The legislation should prohibit for-profit companies from operating immigrant detention shelters. It should also prohibit humanitarian funds from being rerouted to financing the prosecution of immigrants.

Trump has threatened to veto this bill, and Democrats should make him do it. They should hold the line at the principle that they will not trade the suffering of one group of people for the suffering of another.