Republican horse trading on 'national emergency' powers is nonsense

Republican horse trading on 'national emergency' powers is nonsense
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The Senate is expected to vote this week on a joint resolution, which already passed the House of Representatives, to terminate the “national emergency” that the President declared — after months of posturing and bluster — so he could divert funds that Congress has appropriated for other uses to build a portion of his wall along the U.S. southern border. Until recently all indications were that the measure would pass, but some Republicans reportedly are now in talks with the White House about amending the National Emergencies Act to circumscribe the President’s powers going forward as an alternative to voting against the President now.

This is nonsense. Senators should not be trading one for the other. Congress needs to terminate the “emergency,” summon the courage to override a veto if necessary, and then turn sustained focus to the real border crisis: A series of callous and at times unlawful policies that punish some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

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The immediate problem that should seize all lawmakers, put succinctly by a group of 58 former national security officials, is that “under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today” at the southern border. Rather, “[t]he President’s actions are at odds with the overwhelming evidence in the public record, including the administration’s own data and estimates.” More specifically, by historical standards the level of illegal border crossings remains low, even accounting for the most recently released numbers. Terrorists are not flooding in. Undocumented immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and most illicit narcotics that arrive here by land are carried through ports of entry. 

None of this is to dispute that what is happening at the border is a crisis, but it is a different crisis and one of the President’s own making.

Today, the vast majority of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing violence and persecution. Gangs act as de facto governments in areas throughout the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where they terrorize local populations through extortion, forcible recruitment, torture, rape, and murder. Women and children are especially susceptible. Perhaps not surprisingly, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 60 percent of those now crossing the southern border outside ports of entry are families or unaccompanied children. These are people desperately in search of safe haven. Many have been traumatized, by what they endured in their home country, by the often perilous journey to reach the U.S. border, or both. 

Once inside the United States, noncitizens are legally entitled to claim asylum, regardless of how they entered. Still, the Trump administration has adopted a variety of measures to deny that right, and has done so with the explicit purpose of deterring future asylum seekers. The consequences have been devastating. 

One of our organizations, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), provides rehabilitative care to the staggering number of asylum seekers, asylees, and refugees who have survived torture and other similarly significant trauma. CVT’s clinicians, along with other medical and mental health professionals who do similar work, are all too familiar with the kinds of damage the administration is inflicting. 
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For example, forcibly separating children from parents — a practice that some CVT clients have suffered at the hands of foreign dictators — is among the most traumatic events people can experience. For children, it can adversely affect brain development. For adults, it can induce suicidal ideation. These and other resulting harms are intensified in previously traumatized individuals.

Similarly, immigration detention, which the Trump administration has sought to expand (especially for children), is particularly detrimental for torture survivors and victims of similar types of abuse. Practices like handcuffing or shackling, and the presence of guns, uniformed personnel, and other institutional surroundings, are acutely triggering; they force survivors to relive their most horrifying and painful experiences. 

And, of course, preventing asylum seekers from entering the U.S. entirely, which the administration has accomplished most directly through its “remain in Mexico” policy, further exposes them to a host of dangers. These include a heightened risk of human trafficking, which the President claims to be fighting to prevent.

This is not who we are as Americans.

The United States was founded on a principle of welcome for those in need, and immigrants have always been an integral part of our country’s success. Nothing about the Trump administration’s current response to the humanitarian tragedy at our southern border reflects those truths. It’s time that it did. 

Linda Chavez is Director of the Becoming American Initiative, which seeks to promote the positive impact of immigrants and provide the conservative case for immigration and DACA reform. Ms. Chavez served as the Director of the Office of Public Liaison in the Reagan administration, the highest-ranking woman in the Reagan White House. She is the author of “Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation” and is the founder and chair of the Center For Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. She also is a syndicated columnist.

Scott Roehm runs the Washington, D.C. office for the Center for Victims of Torture. He previously served as vice president of programs and policy at the Constitution Project, and as special counsel for pro bono at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, where he represented indigent defendants in federal civil rights and immigration cases.