I’ve spent the past five months researching immigration detention for an investigative article in the Collegian Magazine. I had to look up I-130 forms (petition for an alien relative) and analyze anecdotes to gradually piece together the image of a messy immigration court system. I was surprised at my own lack of granular knowledge on an issue I really cared about. After talking to a detained refugee, an ACLU lawyer and anti-ICE activists, having a brief email exchange with ICE and compiling it all into an article, I felt like I’d only scratched the surface.
The U.S. immigration system is a swamp of details, pitfalls and red flags. And it’s designed to be difficult. Imagine approaching it as a refugee, someone with absolutely no choice but to flee their home country for the U.S., possibly with their children in tow. After struggling to escape adversity in one country, and crossing the border into another, they’re faced with an overwhelming bureaucracy that’s designed to make them fail. One misstep while seeking asylum, and a cruel, inhumane detention camp or ICE detention at a state or local jail awaits them. Family separation is notoriously rampant. Deportation is traumatic and leaves people in the same unsafe environments they fled in the first place. There’s a common-sense response to the madness: The U.S. immigration court system needs a complete overhaul.
A key feature of the U.S. “border crisis” is how it makes the bizarre and horrific seem normal. Phrases like “family separation” and “kids in cages” emerged as alarming buzzwords, but now roll off the tongue in conversation. Many Americans are aware of the cases of deaths and sexual assault at the border, the dangerous journey to the U.S. for refugees and the carousel of disturbing anecdotes about ICE agents during the time of the previous administration. It’s even public knowledge that very young children have been forced to represent themselves, alone, in immigration court. The too-disturbing-to-be-true, overly dark elements of immigration have become normalized. A system that perpetuates such a level of injustice, and which is so blatantly dehumanizing, clearly isn’t functional or worth holding onto.
While immigration and xenophobia aren’t new issues, they’ve been exacerbated and over-politicized in recent years. The U.S. accepted 70% fewer refugees under the Trump administration, and anti-immigrant rhetoric became a key source of political capital for conservatives. The Biden administration hasn’t fixed the problem. The new president’s departure from Trump-era xenophobia, combined with additional COVID-19 related threats worldwide, triggered a spike in immigration that our government isn’t prepared for. On March 21st, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas declared that the border is “closed.” On top of that, Biden is saddled with a hostile, overblown ICE, inflamed by Trumpism. Given that it’s a relatively young agency (founded in 2003), with its reputation for violence, it should already have been abolished. Biden has taken steps to slow ICE arrests, but has not shut down the agency.
The situation at the border has kept its nightmarish quality, even under a Democratic president. Today, with more and more migrants appearing at the southern border and a global pandemic in the mix, detention centers are overwhelmed. As of early March, 200 unaccompanied migrant children were in Customs and Border Protection custody; 2,600 were still waiting for placement in a facility suitable for minors. These are record numbers. It’s a crisis of safety for migrants, particularly children, caught in limbo at the border during a pandemic. An efficient immigration court system, designed to work for those in need, is urgently needed. The first step is to reverse the massive attacks on migrants inflicted by the previous administration.
Immigration court handles civil, not criminal cases. But it’s overcomplicated, unsympathetic and unaccountable. What’s needed is a more humane system, one which adheres to the United States’ “innocent until proven guilty” principle. When immigration judges disagree, as they sometimes do, on the validity of a person’s claim, the empathetic opinion should prevail. Our current system jumps at the chance to remove new arrivals, even on a technicality. If a small procedural error occurs — like a letter holding a court date getting lost in the mail — that should be forgiven. Cases must remain open as long as possible. Providing quality representation to every single asylum seeker and new arrival should be the standard. Proceedings should be transparent. And finally, families should be kept together through the whole process. Even in a system as problematic as the one in place now, people will be safer and stronger together.
Grace Goldstein ‘24 is a columnist for the Collegian. She is an undeclared major from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at email@example.com.