COMMENTARY: ‘Zero tolerance’ immigration crisis isn’t over


For many people, the family separation crisis was a short-lived outrage that appeared to be quickly corrected. The policy’s cruelty, chaotic implementation and ultimate rescission by executive order amid a torrent of international condemnation are well known.

The harsh reality is that on the one-year anniversary of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to family separations, the crisis never truly ended. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, our work monitoring the federal courthouse in McAllen for family separations has revealed a grim routine as the policy’s effects drag on.

Today marks nearly one year of visiting the courthouse, where we conduct hurried intake interviews with traumatized parents and family members separated from their children.

This crisis began with President Trump’s choice to turn our nation’s federal courthouses along the border into family separation factories, abusing a historically little-used law criminalizing border crossing even for asylum seekers. This means that for an entire year, government policy has sought to criminally charge every person regardless of circumstance in federal court.

Reversing this crisis requires ending zero tolerance immediately and repealing the underlying criminal law it is based on, a welcome step at least one presidential candidate has advocated.

The family separation nightmare was set into motion by a new Department of Justice prosecutorial policy — so-called “zero-tolerance”— resulting in every single immigrant apprehended by Border Patrol potentially being charged with the misdemeanor of “illegal entry.” The president abused this existing law and manufactured a crisis, intentionally using criminal prosecutions as an excuse to rip families apart, ensnaring asylum seekers in the criminal system, and subjecting children to torture through prolonged detention with no plan for reunification. There are still parents today who have not seen their children since they were separated.

A national uproar led to a federal injunction and executive order allegedly putting an end to this crisis. Our data collected in McAllen show this disaster never ended. In fact, while Trump administration officials claim that family separations since June are rare, we have documented 272 family separations and nearly 40 separations of parents from their children in McAllen alone, in just one of the 18 federal district courts on the Southwest border.

In an effort to deflate its numbers, the government only considers biological parent-child relationships relevant for tracking separations. This erases the dozens of grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and cousins we interviewed who in many instances are the only real caretakers in their young relatives’ lives.

Because our monitoring only happens in McAllen, we know these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Today, the Trump administration continues to work around the clock to scare the American people into believing there is a national emergency brewing at our borders.

As a native and attorney in the Rio Grande Valley, I know this is simply untrue.

Families who are supposed to be held for no more than 72 hours under Customs and Border Protection policy are being held for more than a week and then released by the hundreds to paint an image of danger and chaos. Last year, the government shipped parents apprehended in South Texas all over the country because of supposed“spacing” issues.

There is nothing to indicate that capacity is any different now — and immigration numbers are nowhere near what we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.

Ricky Garza is a fellow/staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project office based in Alamo. A McAllen native, Garza graduated from Columbia Law School and received his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in international relations. As the 2018 Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellow, he focuses on the intersection of over-policing and immigration enforcement in Texas border communities.