Saul: The Department Of Homeland Security Called These 'Myths' — But Are They?

The zero-tolerance policy continues to be a source of controversy.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

In an effort to clear up some confusion this week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a "myth vs. fact" page about its zero-tolerance immigration policy. Unfortunately, the page seems to be filled with misinformation or misleading claims. 

I've chosen to highlight three things the DHS page claims are "myths" that are actually not myths at all.

"Myth" 1: "DHS separates families who entered at the ports of entry and who are seeking asylum – even though they have not broken the law."

First off, reporters on the ground have been unequivocal: even families arriving at legal ports of entry and seeking asylum are being detained and consequently being separated.

Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, spoke to me last week about how claiming families weren't being separated at legal ports of entry was deceptive. While it's true that legal arrivals won't be prosecuted for illegal entry at ports of entry,  it's also true that the DHS seems to be finding different ways to detain people that arrive ports of entry legally seeking asylum.

As a point of fact, Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen and the DHS Myth vs. Fact page both add some series caveats to the claim that they don't separate families seeking asylum by noting that they actually do separate them under three circumstances: 1) when DHS is unable to determine the familial relationship, 2) when DHS determines that a child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian, and 3) when the parent or legal guardian is referred for criminal prosecution. 

The catch is that many immigrants who show up seeking asylum do not arrive with the expected documentation. A simple DNA test or observation could determine whether a child and adult were related, but the DHS has not made clear the steps they take to determine the familial relationship, and in many cases, the department is reportedly separating children from parents before those steps are taken. 

We also have no idea how the DHS is determining that a child may be at risk with a parent or guardian, and the DHS hasn't been clear about what qualifies someone for a criminal referral. A " referral" is a broad outline, Gelernt explained, that could include something like a DUI offense that occurred in El Salvador 20 years prior.

Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS, roadside stop Route 54, in southern New Mexico, in search of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America
Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS, roadside stop Route 54, in southern New Mexico, in search of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America  Joseph Sohm

"Myth" 2: "DHS has a policy to separate families at the border."

DHS can accurately say there is no directive to separate every family that crosses the border legally and illegally. But the policy has clearly shifted in recent months, and the Washington Examiner estimates that 30,000 immigrant children will be in U.S. government custody by the end of the summer — an unthinkable number in any administration.

While the DHS claims it's a myth it has a policy to separate families, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this policy proudly in May then cited Bible verses to defend it last week. Just a month ago, chief of Staff John Kelly justified the policy as something that would deter immigrants from coming, and Sessions reiterated that its strength as a deterrent on Fox News this week. President Donald Trump himself blamed the policy on the Democrats.

As former White House press Anthony Scaramucci said on Twitter, "You can't simultaneously argue that family separation isn't happening, that it's being used as a deterrent, that the Bible justifies it and that it's @TheDemocrats fault. @POTUS is not being served well by his advisors on this issue."

"Myth" 3: "DHS is turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry."

It's pretty astonishing that the DHS can claim people are not being turned away at ports of entry when the practice has been widely reported on. As recently as this week, The Intercept reported on desperate asylum seekers who are being "turned away by U.S. border agents claiming there's 'no room.'" Journalist Debbie Nathan found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were "systematically violating U.S. and international law" by preventing immigrants from entering the country, even stopping them on bridges from Mexico into the U.S. and telling them to turn around.

That behavior hasn't just been documented by The Intercept: it's something civil rights advocates have been making noise about for years. As a result, many immigrants opt to complete their journey north by crossing illegally. Then, when apprehended, they are charged under the administration's "no tolerance" policy and put into detention. According to internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection documents obtained by MSNBC, 91 percent of parents whose kids are taken away are being prosecuted for misdemeanor first-time entry into the United States. During that time, their children are taken from them and sent to separate detention facilities. When parents are released, they often can't find their children.

I believe many of the bilingual border patrol agents in the southwest are doing their best to handle with compassion the thousands of immigrants that desperately try to come to the United States every da . I'm sure that the vast majority of workers who are caring for these kids in detention centers are doing their best to treat them well. And I even agree with Nielsen and Trump that Congress could act to change this practice with legislation.

But let's be clear: children and their parents have never been separated as harshly and ubiquitously on our borders as they are right now. That policy belongs to President Trump, Sessions, Kelly and Nielsen — and if they didn't want it to happen, it wouldn't. The least this administration could do is own their policy and defend it honestly. 

Instead, they've lied repeatedly that the policy doesn't belong to them or is being taken out of context, all while maintaining that they also hate the idea of separating children from their parents at the border.

If it's true they believe this practice should stop,  then it'd take little more than a phone call to end it. In the time DHS took to create their "myth vs. fact" page, which was riddled with misleading statements, it could have drafted a simple decree to end the policy. I believe many Americans are waiting anxiously to see this policy addressed — and to see the families that it has separated reunited.

Cover image via Shutterstock / James Steidl

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