Trump is targeting unauthorized illegal immigrant children — US citizen kids could be next

Trump is targeting unauthorized illegal immigrant children — US citizen kids could be next
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This summer, the country has focused its attention on the forced separation of immigrant families at the U.S. southern border. Initially touted by the Trump administration as a policy to deter illegal immigration, the decision drew rare bipartisan condemnation.

Under intense pressure, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE eventually signed an executive order in June to reverse the practice of family separation. By that point the damage had been done. Now, weeks later, hundreds of families are still not reunited and doubts are growing that they ever will be.

This hasty “zero tolerance” policy is the administration’s latest in a series that use children to advance a regressive immigration agenda. These policies demonstrate the White House’s dwindling hesitation to increase penalties on the most vulnerable in order to advance its nativist objectives. All signs indicate that U.S. citizen children are its next targets.


Surrounding the president’s campaign against immigrants, policymakers will recognize a familiar theory to explain migration: “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors are circumstances in the country of origin that force migrants away, while pull factors are those that attract them to a destination country. The push factors driving the current surge of refugees from Central America include gang and societal violence, poverty, and a culture of impunity.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid Judiciary issues blitz of subpoenas for Kushner, Sessions, Trump associates MORE recently suggested, with little evidence, that the U.S. asylum system is also a pull factor because it is ripe for fraud and abuse. But the administration has not yet articulated the pull factor animating its cynical stance on family separation — the desire of parents to provide safety and protection for their children.

For the majority of Central Americans I have represented, faith in American rule of law and commitment to human rights are the major draws to the U.S. Trumpian policies pervert these pull factors and use them to punish immigrant parents and children seeking protection.

Trump’s willingness to bargain with the welfare of children and families began last year, with his attempt to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA offered protection to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents. Ensuing debates about the status of DACA recipients failed to yield a legislative fix — in part, because of the President’s shifting stance on DACA legislation.

Trump opportunistically used the uncertain future of DACA to call for construction of his pet border wall project. He also blamed DACA for encouraging crossings into the U.S., despite the fact that new arrivals would not qualify for the program’s protections. This view of DACA as a “magnet” for migration falls into line with his administration’s efforts to subvert family integrity as a factor attracting immigrants to the U.S.

The Trump administration is not the first to try to neutralize pull factors to deter migration. In the 1980s, policymakers created penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented laborers, relying on the theory that job opportunities in the U.S. were the primary pull. Ten years later, the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 theorized that the availability of government welfare attracted newcomers. That law penalized immigrants — documented and undocumented — by conditioning their immigration status (or the opportunity for future status) on the avoidance of welfare benefits.

Neither one of those laws succeeded in meaningfully reducing irregular border crossings (in fact, unauthorized immigration surged in their wake). Nevertheless, the Trump administration is preparing to dust off this old theory — this time, with an unconscionable new variation on the theme. While the desire to secure a better future for one’s family has pulled several generations to the U.S., never before now has the U.S. government sought to cut off that magnet by brazenly targeting children for punishment.

After holding Dreamers and immigrant families hostage, Trump now seems determined to escalate the strategy. Documents from within the administration indicate that he now has his sights on U.S. citizen children living in poverty. In leaked drafts, the administration proposes increasing the penalties on immigrant families whose U.S. citizen children receive means-tested public benefits such as Women Infants and Children (WIC), Medicaid, and Supplemental Nutritional (SNAP).

The administration is calling for immigrants whose families use these benefits to face denial of immigration status and deportation. According to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, these changes could affect an estimated 9.2 million U.S. citizen children’s access to vital services to which they are legally entitled.

These leaked policies demonstrate the administration’s continued commitment to policies that most deeply punish those with no choice in creation of their circumstances — the children of immigrants. Any justification about the deterrent effect of these policies is wholly illogical in view of the steep toll paid by children.

Even if these policies could effectively deter desperate families, we as a country must still reject them outright. The pull to opportunity, protection, and family unity are at the core of what we have come to understand as the American dream. While the need for immigration reform is real, any changes in law and policy must reflect these ideals.

Despite the administration’s contrary view, enforcing the law also includes upholding the current system’s emphasis on family unity and humanitarian protection. Instead, these new policies exploit desperate families in order to punish, scapegoat, and traumatize — all under the banner of law and order.

Cori Alonso-Yoder teaches law at American University Washington College of Law where she supervises an immigrant rights clinic.