How Zero Tolerance Exposes Problems With Immigration Policy

Image by Justin Mandrell.
Courtesy of Stockvault.

There’s been a big deal lately in the U.S. about the Trump administration’s new policy of zero tolerance on illegal immigration (information here and here). The reporting’s been everywhere about it, usually suited to a political narrative. These narratives actually ignore some important details about U.S. immigration policy, and how this has been a brewing problem for decades.

For example, we’re really beholden to executive restraint.
Previous administrations haven’t had to deal with the ugly news of separating children from parents because they chose to handle the proceedings differently. That said, providing any sort of criminal penalties for illegal immigration meant that it could be treated as a crime. And treating it like a crime would open up immigration to all the ugliness of criminal proceedings. As some people on the political right have noted, if a parent commits a felony, that parent can lose his or her kids.

For years we’ve had Democrats and Republicans talk about being tough on border security. They’ve passed laws which allow our government to prosecute people for no other reason than they didn’t jump through the correct hoops to get here. Until now, lawmakers probably reasoned that such laws were harmless because nobody would enforce them. Except now we have a President who is willing to do that, and so these chickens are coming home to roost.

Speaking of chickens, exploiting kids has been a problem, too.
Even the problem of unaccompanied minors – kids who don’t have parents when the state takes them into custody – isn’t a new one. For years, children have been used for almost slave-labor. Health and Human Services, the Federal department overseeing these children, have been swamped by kids who are smuggled into the country and then forgotten once someone comes to claim them. Children who come here to work often get threatened with violence if they tell anyone about what’s going on.

What is the problem here?
Immigration only gets talked about when it’s politically expedient to do so. We’re talking about zero tolerance now because it’s an excuse to blame Trump for hurting children. But really both sides tend to ignore our other problems when it comes to immigration. They’re political pawns who only get defended when an election’s going on. At other times, laws get passed which don’t do anything to help what’s going on.

And zero tolerance is a bad idea. HHS couldn’t handle the other influx of children, and saddling them with more isn’t doing anyone any favors. It would be more efficient and humane to not jail parents. Deportations don’t require a prison sentence.

This problem isn’t going to go away with one president or party in power. It is a monster of everyone’s creation. Our immigration laws are incredibly inflexible and punish the innocent too often. Zero tolerance is just the latest example of how this is true.