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Scholars, legal experts speak on zero tolerance policies

| Thursday, September 6, 2018

Scholars and legal experts spoke on the shortfalls of the “zero tolerance” policy in the U.S. immigration system in a panel on Wednesday called “Immigration and Just Peace: A Discussion on U.S. Family and Child Detention Policies” in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium.

Fr. Daniel Groody, associate professor of theology and global affairs and director of the Kellogg Global Leadership Program, said he believes the U.S. government misunderstands the nature of the mass migrations sweeping Central America.

“Migration is not the main problem but a symptom of more fundamental issues,” he said.

Groody said he advises the U.S. to avoid policies that merely seek to enforce border patrol but instead to enact those that address illegal immigration’s root causes — violence and economic destitution in the countries immigrants leave behind.

He added that the government’s treatment of immigrants deserves special attention from church leaders due to the human rights violations it perpetuates.

“It’s a significant moral issue I think that really demands the best of our energies, and it’s getting worse rather than better,” he said.

The crisis asks individuals to weigh the importance of values such as civil law, natural law, citizenship and discipleship, he added.

“There are kinds of issues of identity and belonging that have to do with being a member of the state, however there are deeper questions about who we are before God and who were are in relationship to one another,” he said.

Erin Corcoran, executive director of the Kroc Institute and concurrent faculty member at the Keough School of Global Affairs, discussed the history of immigration rights in the context of both international and domestic law.

She said the conventional definition of a refugee was introduced in the “1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” a treaty that outlined the rights of immigrants in the international community.

The treaty defined a refugee as “a person who is outside his or her own country of origin or last habitual residence who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

Another significant change to U.S. immigration law came in 1996, she said, when Congress introduced the “expedited removal” procedure. This procedure allows border protection officers to deport immigrants who do not have valid travel documents without a hearing before an immigration judge, she said.

“The thought was that people who didn’t have a right to be here shouldn’t have to be able to appear before immigration judges,” she said.

Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said family separation has fundamentally altered how undocumented immigrant children are handled when taken into custody by the state.

“This whole system where children are placed in the care of the offices of refugee resettlement … was really transformed into a detention system for children who had been separated from their parents at the border,” she said.

Koop said the practice began in March 2017, when John Kelly, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and now Chief of Staff for the Trump administration, recommended it as a means to discourage illegal immigration.

This “zero-tolerance” approach to undocumented immigration has turned U.S. border control into a system “that left no space, virtually, for human rights to be realized,” she added.

Koop said though an end to family separation was mandated by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw on June 26, the initiative has not been widely successful.

“From there, the chaos that we all saw in the news ensued, because there never was a system to reunify the families,” she said.

Professor of psychology Darcia Narvaez spoke on the dangers of separating children from their caregivers.

Narvaez said the social stimuli that families provide — such as touch, play and emotional support — are all crucial for a child’s successful development.

“We are biosocial animals,” she said.

When these factors are removed, children retrogress developmentally, she said. This poses a grave risk for impulsiveness, violent behavior and depressive disorders later in life, she added.

Cory Smith, vice president of policy, communications and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that provides legal defense for unaccompanied minors in the U.S. immigration system, called for public action against family separation.

He said a new bill, called the Central American Reform and Enforcement Act would soon be introduced to Congress and would “provide a framework for how to address root causes” of human migration.

“What this bill would do is address the root causes of gang violence, address the femicide — the sex and gender-based violence — the incredible violences going on the state is not willing or unable to protect,” he said.

Smith said he advises individuals to work for change in U.S. immigration law by spreading awareness about the immigration process — publishing opinion editorials and reaching out to local Congress members, for example.

“Nothing will change until the conditions on the ground change,” he said.

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About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

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