For most Americans, President Trump’s promise to crack down on undocumented immigration is a political issue that is part of his America First promise, but for thousands of people from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. to escape a life filled with poverty, violence, corruption and other inhumane horrors, it has become a new nightmare.
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Under President Obama, those who crossed the southern border illegally could end up in prison or be deported, but since early May the U.S. policy is zero tolerance, which means if you cross without documentation — regardless of whether you’re a drug smuggler or simply a woman with children fleeing the unspeakable horrors of domestic violence and police corruption — upon arrival in America you are considered a criminal and separated from your children.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in May.
A woman who escaped El Salvador, one of the most violent and lawless countries in the world, turned herself and her small children over to U.S. border patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande river on an inner tube into Texas and asked for asylum.
Under the Trump system, she was charged with smuggling — meaning she was determined to be a criminal — and her children, even those of pre-school age, were sent separately to detention facilities that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.
A federal court system along the Southern border that used to handle a few cases each day is now flooded with dozens, even hundreds of cases each day, overwhelming the judges, straining the lawyers charged with protecting rights, costing millions and forcing mass trials that may violate the law and international treaties and certainly violate the ethical standards of human rights America once represented.
Although it is illegal to photograph these mass trials in a federal courtroom, a photograph recently surfaced of more than 40 immigrants being tried in the Lucius D. Bunton Federal Courthouse in Pecos, Texas, a small town about 70 miles southwest of Odessa, Texas.
Each man and woman wears an orange jumpsuit and is in arm, body, and leg shackles that clank as they move around or try to respond to questions from the judge during a trial that typically last one to two hours – for all 40 plus defendants.
“When a judge asks a question, the entire room must often answer in unison to save time. Many of the migrants have no clue where their children are,” reported Debbie Nathan for The Intercept on May 29.
“It feels like an assembly line,” Nathan added. “It’s a mass production of guilty pleas. It’s horrible. I’ve been pretty broken by all of this.”
While Nathan witnessed the judge tell crying parents that once they are sent to a detention camp they will be reunited with their children, the reporter later learned it was not true in most cases, and the judge was lying.
Two weeks before Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in early May, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services told Congress the agency had lost track of the whereabouts of 1,475 migrant children placed with sponsors. In some cases, the parents will be sent to prison and/or deported and never see their children again.
Most of those herded in and out of the mass trials plead guilty because they seem to have no other choice.
“After the guilty pleas,” Nathan reports, “(Judge) Morgan lectured the immigrants. ‘The world is a different place,’ he explained on his first day of mass proceedings. ‘This country has become a different place. I’m not going to say right or wrong — it’s just what the law says.'”
“It was unclear,” she added, “if the silent defendants had a clue about what the judge was referring to.”
The Intercept reported that Erika Guevara-Rosas, America’s director at Amnesty International, said in a statement that the U.S. government’s separating children from their parents as they seek asylum is “a flagrant violation of their human rights. Doing so in order to push asylum seekers back into dangerous situations where they may face persecution is also a violation of U.S. obligations under refugee law.”
In the courtroom where Nathan watched, 32 people were convicted and sentenced in a 46-minute trial.
As soon as it was over the judge exited and, reports Nathan, “the chained migrants then struggled and clanked to their fates, without their children.”
Trump has complained the legal system takes too long in dealing with these immigrants and that these harsh methods are needed to stop the constant flow of people trying to get into the U.S. by any means.
While crossing the border without documentation is against the law, in past years the law was interpreted to be fair, humane, and proper under the U.S. judicial system but under Trump that no longer is the case.