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Youngest Migrants Held in ‘Tender Age’ US Shelters

Trump administration officials have been sending babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to at least three “tender age” shelters in South Texas, The Associated Press has learned. 

Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis. The government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.

Since the White House announced its zero tolerance policy in early May, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in a new influx of young children requiring government care. The government has faced withering critiques over images of some of the children in cages inside U.S. Border Patrol processing stations.

Decades after the nation’s child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children, the administration is standing up new institutions to hold Central American toddlers that the government separated from their parents.

“The thought that they are going to be putting such little kids in an institutional setting? I mean it is hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which provides foster care and other child welfare services to migrant children. “Toddlers are being detained.” 

Bellor said shelters follow strict procedures surrounding who can gain access to the children in order to protect their safety, but that means information about their welfare can be limited.

By law, child migrants traveling alone must be sent to facilities run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within three days of being detained. The agency then is responsible for placing the children in shelters or foster homes until they are united with a relative or sponsor in the community as they await immigration court hearings. 

But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement last month that the government would criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has led to the breakup of hundreds of migrant families and sent a new group of hundreds of young children into the government’s care. 

The United Nations, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers and religious groups have sharply criticized the policy, calling it inhumane. 

Not so, said Steven Wagner, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“We have specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs and tender age children as we define as under 13 would fall into that category,” he said. “They’re not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they’re staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs – particularly of the younger children.” 

Until now, however, it’s been unknown where they are.

“In general we do not identify the locations of permanent unaccompanied alien children program facilities,” said agency spokesman Kenneth Wolfe.

Drawing the line

The three centers – in Combes, Raymondville and Brownsville – have been rapidly repurposed to serve needs of children including some under 5. A fourth, planned for Houston, would house up to 240 children in a warehouse previously used for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner said he met with officials from Austin-based Southwest Key Programs, the contractor that operates some of the child shelters, to ask them to reconsider their plans. A spokeswoman for Southwest Key didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment. 

“And so there comes a point in time we draw a line and for me, the line is with these children,” said Turner during a news conference Tuesday.

On a practical level, the zero tolerance policy has overwhelmed the federal agency charged with caring for the new influx of children who tend to be much younger than teens who typically have been traveling to the U.S. alone. Indeed some recent detainees are infants, taken from their mothers. 

Doctors and lawyers who have visited the shelters said the facilities were fine, clean and safe, but the kids – who have no idea where their parents are – were hysterical, crying and acting out. 

“The shelters aren’t the problem, it’s taking kids from their parents that’s the problem,” said South Texas pediatrician Marsha Griffin who has visited many. 

Alicia Lieberman, who runs the Early Trauma Treatment Network at University of California, San Francisco, said decades of study show early separations can cause permanent emotional damage. 

“Children are biologically programmed to grow best in the care of a parent figure. When that bond is broken through long and unexpected separations with no set timeline for reunion, children respond at the deepest physiological and emotional levels,” she said. “Their fear triggers a flood of stress hormones that disrupt neural circuits in the brain, create high levels of anxiety, make them more susceptible to physical and emotional illness, and damage their capacity to manage their emotions, trust people, and focus their attention on age-appropriate activities.” 

A call for shelter

Days after Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy, the government issued a call for proposals from shelter and foster care providers to provide services for the new influx of children taken from their families after journeying from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

As children are separated from their families, law enforcement agents reclassify them from members of family units to “unaccompanied alien children.” Federal officials said Tuesday that since May, they have separated 2,342 children from their families, rendering them unaccompanied minors in the government’s care. 

While Mexico is still the most common country of origin for families arrested at the border, in the last eight months Honduras has become the fastest-growing category as compared to fiscal year 2017. 

During a press briefing Tuesday, reporters repeatedly asked for an age breakdown of the children who have been taken. Officials from both law enforcement and Health and Human Services said they didn’t how many children were under 5, under 2, or even so little they’re non-verbal. 

“The facilities that they have for the most part are not licensed for tender age children,” said Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, who met with a 4-year-old girl in diapers in a McAllen warehouse where Border Patrol temporarily holds migrant families. “There is no model for how you house tons of little children in cots institutionally in our country. We don’t do orphanages, our child welfare has recognized that is an inappropriate setting for little children.” 

So now, the government has to try to hire more caregivers. 

The recent call for proposals by the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement said it was seeking applicants who can provide services for a diverse population “of all ages and genders, as well as pregnant and parenting teens.” 

Even the policy surrounding what age to take away a baby is inconsistent. Customs and Border Protection field chiefs over all nine southwest border districts can use their discretion over how young is too young, officials said. 

For 30 years, Los Fresnos, Texas-based International Education Services ran emergency shelters and foster care programs for younger children and pregnant teens who arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors. At least one resident sued for the right to have an abortion in a high-profile case last March.

For reasons the agency did not explain, three months ago the government’s refugee resettlement office said it was ending their funding to the program and transferred all children to other facilities. This came weeks before the administration began its “zero tolerance” policy, prompting a surge in “tender age” migrant children needing shelter. 

In recent days, members of Congress have been visiting the shelters and processing centers, or watching news report about them, bearing witness to the growing chaos. In a letter sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, a dozen Republican senators said separating families isn’t consistent with American values and ordinary human decency.

On Tuesday, a Guatemalan mother who hasn’t seen her 7-year-old son since he was taken from her a month ago sued the Trump administration. She was released from custody while her asylum case is pending and thinks her son, Darwin, might be in a shelter in Arizona. She has been able to speak with him on the telephone.

“I only got to talk to him once and he sounded so sad. My son never used to sound like that, he was such a dynamic boy,” Mejia-Mejia said as she wept. “I call and call and no one will tell me where he is.” 

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US Governors Pull National Guard Over Immigration Policy

The governors of multiple East Coast states have announced that they will not deploy National Guard resources near the U.S.-Mexico border, a largely symbolic but politically significant rejection of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in children being separated from their families.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, announced Tuesday morning on his Twitter account that he has ordered four crew members and a helicopter to immediately return from where they were stationed in New Mexico.

“Until this policy of separating children from their families has been rescinded, Maryland will not deploy any National Guard resources to the border,” Hogan tweeted.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who like Hogan is a Republican governor in a blue state, on Monday reversed a decision to send a National Guard helicopter to the border, citing the Trump administration’s “cruel and inhuman” policy.

On the Democratic side, governors in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York and Virginia have all indicated their refusal to send Guard resources to assist with immigration-related issues.

The resources in question from each state are relatively small, so the governors’ actions aren’t likely to have a huge practical impact. But they are a strong symbolic political gesture, said Mileah Kromer, the director of the Sarah T. Hughes field Politics Center at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.

“I think at a time when you have a large percentage of the country questioning the leadership of the Trump administration, it certainly is a moment for the governors across the country to show leadership, particularly at a time when this is so divisive,” Kromer said.

The forced separation of migrant children from their parents has fueled criticism across the political spectrum and sparked nationwide protests of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“Ever since our founding — and even before — our nation has been a beacon for families seeking freedom and yearning for a better life,” Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Tuesday as he signed an executive order prohibiting the use of state resources. “President Trump has turned this promise on its head by doubling down on his inhumane and cruel policy of separating families.”

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday reiterated a decision he first made earlier this year to not send Guard resources to the border to assist with immigration-related duties. He’s also asked for a federal investigation of the policy relating to the separation of the children from their families.

Delaware Governor John Carney, a Democrat, said he turned down a request he received Tuesday to send National Guard troops to the southwest border, while the Democratic governors of Virginia and North Carolina said they would recall Guard members and equipment they already had sent to the border.

“If President Trump revokes the current inhumane policy of separating children from their parents, Delaware will be first in line to assist our sister states in securing the border,” Carney said in a statement.

Governors are not the only ones taking action: Mayors from across the U.S. announced plans to travel to the Texas border on Thursday to protest the “zero-tolerance” policy. The mayors will gather at a point of entry near where migrant minors began arriving at a tent-like shelter last week.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors last week unanimously passed a resolution registering its opposition to separating children from their families at the border.

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White House Deputy Chief of Staff to Leave in July

The White House aide who led the planning for President Donald Trump’s meeting last week with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has decided to leave the Trump administration to return to the private sector.

 

Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, has served in every Republican White House since the Reagan administration. He held the same title in George W. Bush’s White House.

 

Hagin’s departure comes as the Trump administration continues to set records for staff turnover. More than 60 percent of those who served in senior positions at the beginning of the administration have exited.

 

No successor has yet been identified.

 

A White House official said that after departing Singapore last week, Trump made a rare appearance in the staff cabin of Air Force One to praise Hagin for organizing the Kim summit and led White House staff in a round of applause for the aide.

 

Hagin was recruited to the Trump White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus to bring a seasoned hand to a West Wing that had few experienced veterans. He had planned on staying only six months to a year, and considered leaving in the spring, but delayed due to planning for the Singapore summit.

 

Trump, in a statement, said Hagin has been a “huge asset to my administration,” and credited him with planning his Asia trip last year — the longest foreign trip by a U.S. president in a half-century.

 

Chief of Staff John Kelly praised Hagin’s work, saying his “selfless devotion to this nation and the institution of the Presidency is unsurpassed.”

 

Hagin was considered for the No. 2 posts at the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Homeland Security, but he decided to leave government service.

 

Hagin’s portfolio includes oversight of the scheduling and advance staffs, as well as the military office — including the replacement projects for Air Force One and Marine One.

 

His last day will be July 6.

 

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Amid Outcry, Trump Doubles Down on ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration Enforcement

U.S. President Donald Trump is doubling down on his “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, a crackdown that has led to at least 2,000 undocumented children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. VOA Senate correspondent Michael Bowman reports, human rights advocates and lawmakers of both political parties are outraged, sparking action on Capitol Hill.

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Recording of Screaming Children at Border Released

An audio recording was released Monday depicting children desperately crying and begging for their parents after being separated from them by U.S. immigration authorities at its southwestern border, sparking new outrage against the Trump administration and its new “zero-tolerance policy” towards illegal immigrants.

The nearly eight-minute long recording was released by ProPublica, an independent, investigative news site. ProPublica says an unidentified whistleblower passed on the recording to a civil rights attorney, who gave it to the website.

Among the disturbing sounds heard on the recording was a child identified by ProPublica as a six-year-old girl from El Salvador begging authorities in Spanish to call her aunt to pick her up from the detention center. 

At one point in the audio, a man identified as a Border Patrol agent said in Spanish over the cries of scores of children: “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

LISTEN: ProPublica recording of children

President Donald Trump defended his administration’s policy of forcibly separating children from parents at the U.S. border with Mexico on Monday, saying “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility.”

WATCH: Trump Immigration Enforcement

Trump, speaking in the White House East Room during a National Space Council meeting, warned that “what’s happening in Europe … we can’t allow that to happen to the United States – not on my watch.”

Earlier in the day, on the Twitter social media platform, the president inaccurately linked migration in Germany to a rising crime rate. (Actually, the latest German government statistics show reported crimes at the lowest level in 30 years.)

Nearly 2,000 children were sent to mass detention centers or foster care from mid-April to the end of May, according to government officials.

The regular White House briefing was delayed several times Monday amid the furor as officials huddled with Trump in the West Wing.

‘Zero-tolerance’ policy

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders finally introduced Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen by late evening, and she defended the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that is breaking up families at the southwestern U.S. border.

Nielsen forcefully pushed back at the negative media coverage, asserting that what U.S. authorities are doing is properly enforcing the law.

“What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law,” she said.

Asked about critics accusing the administration of using children as “pawns” to demand legislative actions from Congress, the DHS secretary replied, “I say that is a very cowardly response,” adding it is clearly within Congress’ power “to make the laws and change the laws. They should do so.”

Trump’s Republican party controls both chambers in Congress, and the family border policies were set by his administration.

In a tweet displaying photographs of a detention facility, showing children sleeping on mats with foil blankets, Democrat Senator Tim Kaine wrote: “The real Trump Hotel.”

Kaine, a member of a subcommittee on children and families, was his party’s vice presidential nominee on the ticket with Hillary Clinton, which lost to Trump and Mike Pence in 2016. 

Kamala Harris, one of the two Democratic Party senators from California, the most populous state, called Monday for Nielsen’s resignation. 

Harris, mentioned as a likely presidential candidate in 2020, said under Nielsen’s watch “our government has committed human rights abuses by breaking up families along the southern border. And she has failed to be accountable and transparent with the American people.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also added her voice to those calling for Nielsen to quit her post.

Both Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in speeches to a law enforcement group in New Orleans earlier on Monday, defended the administration’s stance.

Sessions said that while the Trump administration does not want to separate children from their parents “we cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws.”

UN rebuke

In a rare rebuke of the United States, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said migrant children should not be separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved,” a spokesman for Guterres said in a statement.

“This is a manufactured crisis. It is not necessary to separate parents and children to effectively enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” said Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for seven years during the Clinton administration.

“Earlier administrations have grappled with comparable issues and their responsibility for enforcing the same laws,” she added. “They have made different choices on how best to enforce the laws because they have understood and recognized that the practices we are witnessing today are at odds with fundamental American values and principles.”

The House of Representatives is preparing for expected votes this week on major changes to U.S. immigration laws. 

Trump is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss two competing Republican immigration reform bills.

Sanders on Monday told reporters Trump is willing to sign either bill.

Both would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, make sweeping changes to legal immigration, and boost U.S. border security. However, it is unclear if either will attract enough votes to pass. 

“The degree to which the president seemingly believes and continues to equate immigrants and refugees with crime and danger contributes to heightening fear and opposition to immigration,” Meissner told VOA. “This makes it very difficult for members of Congress to reach agreement on important legislative measures that the country should be taking to manage immigration challenges more effectively.”

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Trump’s Tariff War Threatens to Erode Support of Farmers

President Donald Trump’s tariff battle with key buyers of U.S. apples, soybeans and corn threatens the support of some of his biggest backers – U.S. farmers now seeing their livelihoods in jeopardy.

Farmers overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election, welcoming how he championed rural economies and vowed to repeal estate taxes that often hit family farms hard.

Now those same farmers are seeing crop prices fall and export markets shrink after Trump’s tariffs triggered a wave of retaliation from buyers of U.S. apples, cheese, potatoes, bourbon and soybeans.

“A lot of people in the ag community were willing to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt,” said Brian Kuehl, executive director of Farmers for Free Trade. “The reason you are seeing people increase the pressure now is because thepressure is increasing on them. Now the impact is really starting to hit. It is not something you can just take lightly.”

His group, along with the U.S. Apple Association, will start running television ads on Tuesday attacking Trump’s tariffs in Pennsylvania and Michigan, apple-growing states that could play a role in which party controls Congress after the November elections.

Trump, a Republican, has said farmers will not become a casualty in any trade war, floating ideas like subsidizing those hurt by tariffs.

Even before trading partners imposed tariffs, U.S. farmers were facing a tough year. Net farm income was expected to fall 6.7 percent to $59.5 billion in 2018, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Now an even more bearish tone hangs over agricultural markets due to trade spats with NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico, plus mounting tensions with China and Europe.

After Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Mexico imposed a 20 percent tariff on imports of U.S. apples, potatoes and cranberries.

Last week, Trump imposed $50 billion in tariffs on China.

Beijing retaliated with a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans and other goods starting July 6, sending soybean futures to a two-year low and throwing into doubt forecasts for U.S. soybean exports to rise 11 percent this marketing year.

China’s tariffs could contribute to a 30 percent drop in income for Ohio corn and soybean farmers this year, said Ben Brown, manager of an Ohio State University farm program.

If the tariffs stay in place, net farm income in Ohio could drop as much as 63 percent in 2019, he said.

Last week, the American Soybean Association said it was disappointed and for weeks had implored the Trump administration to “find non-tariff solutions to address Chinese intellectual property theft and not place American farmers in harm’s way.”

The group added that the White House has ignored its requests for meetings.

The timing also hurts farmers, as it is too late in the season for farmers to adjust planting plans.

“Crops are in the ground and will soon be ready for harvest,” said Casey Guernsey with Americans For Farmers and Families. “We need the certainty of knowing that there will be market availability in order to sell them.”

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Trump: US ‘Will Not Be a Migrant Camp’

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday said the separation of children from their parents trying to enter the United States illegally is “so sad,” but showed no signs of changing the policy.

“A country without borders is not a country at all,” Trump said. “We want safety and security for our country … and it starts with the border.”

The American leader said the U.S. would not be a “migrant camp” or “refugee holding facility.”

“Not on my watch,” Trump declared.

WATCH: Trump on immigration

Trump blamed opposition Democratic lawmakers for the impasse over U.S. immigration policies, even though Trump’s Republican party controls both chambers in Congress, and the family border policies were set by his administration.

“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said. He said border policies “can be taken care of very quickly” if Democrats “come to the table” to negotiate with the majority Republicans, who themselves are divided over immigration issues.

Trump spoke at the White House as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers assailed Trump and his administration for tough border enforcement that has led to the family breakups, with nearly 2,000 children being sent to mass detention centers or foster care from mid-April to the end of May. Trump’s wife, first lady Melania Trump, through a spokeswoman, offered a rare public policy statement Sunday saying she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the (political) aisle (in Congress) can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”

In New Orleans on Monday, both Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in speeches to a law enforcement group, defended the Trump administration’s stance on splitting up families if they try to enter the country illegally, vowing to prosecute the migrants and offering no apologies for the policy.

“Let’s be honest. There are some who would like us to look the other way when dealing with families at the border and not enforce the law passed by Congress,” she said. “We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family. We have to do our job. We will not apologize for doing our job. We have sworn to do this job.”

Nielsen said, “This administration has a simple message: If you cross the border illegally, we will prosecute you. If you make a false immigration claim, we will prosecute you. If you smuggle illegal aliens across an extraordinarily dangerous journey, we will prosecute you.”

Sessions said, “We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully, placing them at risk.”

“But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry,” Sessions added. “We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws.”

Generosity being abused

Nielsen, who at times has drawn Trump’s ire for not keeping more immigrants out of the country, said, “We are a compassionate country,” admitting 3 million refugees since 1975, which she said was “more than all other countries combined.”

But she added, “Our generosity is being abused,” saying there has been a recent 315 percent increase in the number of illegal aliens using children as a way to get into the United States.

Nielsen said that foreign nationals seeking asylum in the U.S. should “go to a port of entry” for routine processing rather than attempt to enter the country over the rivers and rocky terrain along the southern border with Mexico. The wait for consideration of asylum claims in the U.S., however, can be lengthy, with Nielsen saying there currently is a backlog of 600,000 cases awaiting adjudication.

The Trump administration’s defense of separating children from their parents at the border came amid a growing protest, from both Republicans and Democrats.

Former first lady Laura Bush, the wife of former Republican President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post that the separation of children at the border is “cruel” and “immoral,” and said “it breaks my heart.”

Trump, in a string of Twitter comments, decried Europe’s problems with mass immigration and vowed to control the flow of migrants into the United States.

“Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country,” he said in one tweet. “Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”

‘Unconscionable’

In a rare rebuke of the United States, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said migrant children should not be separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved,” a Guterres spokesman said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Monday that seeking to deter parents by inflicting abuse on children is “unconscionable.”

“Mr. President, people do not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing a border without a visa,” Zeid said. “I deplore the adoption by many countries of policies intended to make themselves as inhospitable as possible by increasing the suffering of many already vulnerable people.”

The furor over the Trump policy of “zero tolerance” for unauthorized border arrivals is occurring as the House of Representatives prepares for expected votes this week on major reforms to U.S. immigration laws, including whether to create a path to U.S. citizenship for as many as 1.8 million undocumented young immigrants already living in the U.S. who were brought to the country illegally years ago by their parents.

Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the separations, claiming they are responsible for the situation. The Trump administration put in place the policy to arrest all migrants who illegally cross the U.S. border, including those seeking asylum, and because children cannot be sent to the same detention facilities as their parents, they are separated.

“The Democrats should get together with their Republican counterparts and work something out on Border Security & Safety,” Trump tweeted late Sunday. “Don’t wait until after the election because you are going to lose!”

Trump is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss two competing Republican immigration reform bills.

Both bills would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, make sweeping changes to legal immigration, and boost U.S. border security. It is unclear if either will attract enough votes to pass.

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US Supreme Court Acts in Gerrymandering Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday has ruled against state Democrats in a case concerning partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, sending it back to a lower court for a decision.

Gerrymandering is the process of redrawing lines of a state’s electoral districts in order to gain an electoral advantage. Gerrymandering on racial and ethnic grounds was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1993, in the case Shaw v. Reno.

The Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, concerned the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts. The plaintiffs in the case argued the districts drawn by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature following the 2010 midterm elections unfairly favored the party.

The court said that while its decision “expresses no view on the merits of the plaintiffs’ case,” they would send the case to the lower courts in order for the plaintiffs to present evidence “that would tend to demonstrate a burden on their individual votes.”

In October, during oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed attempts to discern partisan gerrymandering as “sociological gobbledygook.”

‘Yet another delay’

“Today’s decision is yet another delay in providing voters with the power they deserve in our democracy,” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, in a statement. “Partisan gerrymandering is distorting and undermining our representative democracy, giving politicians the power to choose their voters, instead of giving voters the power to choose their politicians.”

Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court also sidestepped a definitive ruling in a similar case in Maryland. The court did not immediately block congressional district lines drawn by Democrats to maximize the party’s advantage.

The high court could soon decide on whether to take up a similar case from North Carolina.

Redistricting in the U.S. happens every 10 years, and Monday’s decision is regarded as especially important, coming ahead of the next round of redistricting in 2021.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ordered the state to redraw its federal congressional districts, breaking a Republican gerrymander of the state.

 

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Erosion of Immigrant Protections Began With Trump Inauguration

The Trump administration’s move to separate immigrant parents from their children on the U.S.-Mexico border has grabbed attention around the world, drawn scorn from human-rights organizations and overtaken the immigration debate in Congress.

It’s also a situation that has been brewing since the week President Donald Trump took office, when he issued his first order signaling a tougher approach to asylum-seekers. Since then, the administration has been steadily eroding protections for immigrant children and families.

“They’re willing to risk harm to a child being traumatized, separated from a parent and sitting in federal detention by themselves, in order to reach a larger policy goal of deterrence,” said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense, which represents children in immigration court.

To those who work with immigrants, the parents’ plight was heralded by a series of measures making it harder for kids arriving on the border to get released from government custody and to seek legal status here.

Backlash

The administration says the changes are necessary to deter immigrants from coming here illegally. But a backlash is mounting, fueled by reports of children being taken from mothers and distraught toddlers and elementary school age children asking, through tears, when they can see their parents.

About 2,000 children had been separated from their families over a six-week period ending in May, administration officials said Friday.

Among the parents caught up in the new rules is 29-year-old Vilma Aracely Lopez Juc de Coc, who fled her home in a remote Guatemalan village after her husband was beaten to death in February, according to advocates. When she reached the Texas border with her 11-year-old son in May, he was taken from her by border agents, she said.

Her eyes swollen, she cried when she asked a paralegal what she most wanted to know: When could she see her son again?

“She did not know what was going on,” said paralegal Georgina Guzman, recalling their conversation at a federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas.

Similar scenarios play out on a daily basis in federal courtrooms in Texas and Arizona, where dozens of immigrant parents appear on charges of entering the country illegally after traveling up from Central America. More than the legal outcome of their cases, their advocates say, they’re worried about their children.

Since Trump’s inauguration, the administration has issued at least half a dozen orders and changes affecting immigrant children, many of them obscure revisions. The cumulative effect is a dramatic alteration of immigration policy and practice.

The measures require a senior government official to sign off on the release of children from secure shelters and allow immigration enforcement agents access to information about sponsors who sign up to take the children out of government custody and care for them.

The crackdown expanded in April, when the administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy on the border to prosecute immigrants for entering the country illegally in the hopes they could be quickly deported and that the swift deportations would prevent more people from coming.

Parents are now being arrested and placed in quick federal court proceedings near the border. Since children cannot be jailed in federal prisons, they’re placed in shelters that have long existed for unaccompanied immigrant children arriving on the border alone.

The administration insists the new rules are necessary to send a message to immigrants.

“Look, I hope that we don’t have to separate any more children from any more adults,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week. “But there’s only one way to ensure that is the case: It’s for people to stop smuggling children illegally. Stop crossing the border illegally with your children. Apply to enter lawfully. Wait your turn.”

Immigration on the southwest border has remained high since the zero-tolerance policies took effect. Border agents made more than 50,000 arrests in May, up slightly from a month earlier and more than twice the number in May 2017. About a quarter of arrests were families traveling with children.

Asylum seekers

In addition to those trying to cross on their own, large crowds of immigrants are gathered at border crossings each day to seek asylum. Some wait days or weeks for a chance to speak with U.S. authorities. On a Texas border bridge, parents and children have been sleeping in sweltering heat for several days awaiting their turn.

Under U.S. law, most Mexican children are sent back across the border. Central American and other minors are taken into government custody before they are mostly released to sponsors in the United States.

The arrival of children fleeing violence in Central America is not new. President Barack Obama faced an even larger surge in border crossings that overflowed shelters and prompted the authorities to release many families. Nearly 60,000 children were placed in government-contracted shelters in the 2014 fiscal year.

Obama administration lawyers argued in federal court in Los Angeles against the separation of parents and children and in favor of keeping in family detention facilities those deemed ineligible for release.

Immigrant and children’s advocates said the new measures are not only cruel but costly. They argued that children fleeing violence and persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will continue to come to the United States and remain in government custody longer, costing taxpayers more money.

The government pays more than $1 billion a year to care for unaccompanied immigrant children, Sessions has said.

In May 2014, the average length of stay for children in custody was 35 days. So far this fiscal year, it’s taking 56 days for children to be released to sponsors — in most cases, their own relatives.

Many children were released to sponsors who did not have legal immigration status. That’s yet another concern child advocates now have since the Trump administration is requiring fingerprints of sponsors and their household members and will turn that data over to the immigration agency in charge of deportations.

Advocates say the new information sharing might lead some parents to shy away from sponsoring their own children and ask others to do so, a situation that can lead to cases of trafficking or neglect.

Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the immigrant advocacy program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, said he’s never worked with immigrants who said U.S. policies influenced their decision to move. They are fleeing violence and persecution, and he doesn’t see that changing even if the government deports parents.

“Look six months out from now,” he said. “Are these moms going to stay in Guatemala? Hell no, they’re going to come back looking for their kids.” 

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Amid Family Separation Furor, US House Plans Immigration Votes

As the House of Representatives prepares for expected votes on major reforms to U.S. immigration law this week, the Trump administration defends the separation of some undocumented immigrant children from their parents,

Once a rare practice, federal agents now routinely separate families seeking asylum or attempting to enter the United States illegally. Roughly 2,000 minors had been separated from their families over a six-week period ending in May, administration officials said last week.  

Video released by the U.S. government shows what appears to be humane conditions at a shelter site for children. But furor over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for unauthorized border arrivals is growing.

Over the weekend, several protests were held across the country as lawmakers, religious leaders and American citizens decried the family separation policy.

Texas protest

Democratic Texas state Congressman Beto O’Rourke led hundreds of people on a march Sunday in Tornillo, Texas, where the government is holding some of the children. The purpose of the march, he said, was to “help this country to make the right decision, and part of that is knowing what’s going on in the first place.”

Watch related video by VOA’s Michael Bowman:

O’Rourke, who is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, was joined by U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, also a Democrat.

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, also spoke out against the policy.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit,” he said on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Miami (Florida) Archbishop Thomas Wenski said, “The policy is designed to frighten the parents by taking away their kids, traumatizing the kids. And they [federal agents] think that will serve as a deterrent for people exercising a basic human right, which is to ask for asylum.”

Even first lady Melania Trump released a statement that appeared to oppose her husband’s policy.

“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” her office Sunday said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”

But Trump continues to view America’s immigration debate through the lens of public safety, often pointing to foreign-born members of a vicious Central American gang.

Defend policy

And his advisers, both past and present, continue to defend the policy.

“Nobody likes” breaking up families and “seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms,” said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president. But she placed the blame on the Democrats.

Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, also defended the policy saying, “We ran on a policy, very simply, stop mass illegal immigration and limit legal immigration, get our sovereignty back, and to help our workers, OK? And so he went to a zero-tolerance policy.”  

Immigration experts and many legal scholars, however, said the administration is interpreting U.S. immigration law as no other administration has. Democrats have condemned both the policy and Trump’s rationale for pursuing it.

“In the world, there is a recognition that people can seek asylum, except, apparently not in the United States,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said.

Emotions are also being stoked as the House of Representatives prepares to vote this week on two competing Republican immigration reform bills.

“We said from the beginning we want the House to debate immigration reform in a serious, meaningful way. And it looks like that is happening for the first time in nearly a decade,” Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo said.

Both bills would provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to America as children, make sweeping changes to legal immigration, and boost U.S. border security. It is unclear if either will attract enough votes to pass.

Trump is to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss the proposed legislation.

Also Sunday, officials say at least five people died after an SUV fleeing Border Patrol agents crashed in southern Texas.

Texas public safety officials said many people in the vehicle might have been living in the U.S. without legal permission. The driver and at least one other person, believed to be U.S. citizens, are in custody, the state officials said.

VOA’s Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

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