Zero Tolerance Policies are Killing Children and their Parents: Make Immigration Status a Protected Class

by Priya D. Saxena, Co-Chair, Seattle Women’s Commission

(The following is the first in a series of articles written by Commissioners from The Seattle Women’s Commission. The Commission advises the Mayor, City Council, and City of Seattle departments on issues that impact the women of Seattle.

The troubling separations of children from their parents at the southern border, as part of this administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” will have long-lasting consequences on our community. As such, representatives from our Commission’s four subcommittees; Community Health and Wellness, Economic and Educational Opportunities, Equitable Development, and Violence Prevention and Justice, have each penned OpEds relating to how family separations will impact these four areas in our community.)

Since May, we’ve seen countless horrific stories, images, and videos of children who were seeking asylum and instead were ripped away from their families and living in abhorrent conditions. This is not the first time in our history this has happened but it must be the last.

Our country, and more particularly, Seattle, has a shameful history of detaining and separating those who might be considered “other”. In March 1942, Bainbridge Island became the first location to issue a civilian exclusion order by the military. Only days after President Roosevelt’s executive order to move “enemy aliens” to internment camps, forty-five families of Japanese descent were given one week to evacuate their homes. Grim comparisons have been made between the “zero-tolerance” policy now and Japanese internment. After the Indian Wars, Native children were separated from their families and sent to Indian Boarding Schools. These schools were built with the mandate, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. And this policy did just that. Native children were ripped away from their homes and forced to forget their culture. This devastation is a dark mark on our history. Most importantly, the generational trauma experienced by those who were the targets of these policies has not faded.

Today, we are faced with the reality that any individual seeking asylum faces persecution. And, I would be remiss to point out that people of color and Muslims face daily persecution through our immigration system. Women and children are in particular danger due to changes in how the country defines asylum. Over the past 20 years, immigration courts have recognized gender-based violence as one valid reason for granting asylum. Women escaping rape, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and assault were granted the ability to come to this country to seek safety. However, just this month, Attorney General Sessions reversed that ruling. History is repeating itself. The country is shutting the door on families seeking asylum–on women fleeing domestic violence–and detaining those we unrightfully see as threats or “other”. Even worse, this policy reversal is particularly harmful to women and their children. According to the Latin American Studies Association, this action ignores the international movement to recognize women’s rights to safety, security, and to live lives free from gender-based violence.

Our story of detaining, deporting, and othering vulnerable populations is not new. But, instead of learning from our history, we are inflicting physical and psychological harm on vulnerable women and children who seek shelter from violence. Research has shown that Japanese internment camps– so similar in conditions and sentiment to modern day deportation– come with short-term health outcomes including avoidable contamination from food and water, increased illness, and even preventable death. Long-term impacts included greater likelihood to live with and pass down generational trauma and a greater likelihood of committing suicide.

We know that detaining children and families is inhumane and can lead to traumatic stress. In the worst cases– cases that are all too common– detainment can lead to death. Why do we continue this practice?

When will we learn from our history? When will we learn from our own mistakes? When will we make it safe for immigrants to live and thrive in this country?

Families and children currently detained at the border face abhorrent and deadly circumstances. The American Academy of Pediatrics likens this crisis to child abuse. CNN reports that children are being handcuffed, drugged, and assaulted. This is not just happening to children. And this is not the first time we’ve heard such news. In 2014, children reported being kept in facilities so frigid their noses were bleeding. Roxana Hernandez, a Honduran trans-woman, died of HIV complications, neglect, and freezing temperatures while detained at the border. Marco Antonio Munoz, a father, committed suicide after he was separated from his family at the border. 

And just recently, President Donald Trump called for depriving immigrants who cross the border of due process rights. This call faces a constitutional question. Already, immigrants are held in detention longer than legally called for due to lack of systems to process their hearings. The latest hearing scheduled in Seattle is set for December 2021. That means families and children might be held in detention for four years. What’s worse? After years of waiting, when parents and children move through their hearings and are finally welcomed into the United States, family reunification is not certain. Additionally, immigrant families face worse outcomes than non-immigrant families.

The Seattle Women’s Commission condemns the national policy of detaining families at the border and denying their due process. Most importantly, we believe Seattle can do better. We urge Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council to strengthen and enforce the sensitive locations policy and make immigration status a protected class in the city of Seattle.

Sensitive locations restrict immigration agents from conducting actions at places essential to the health and wellness of children. And, enacting immigration status as a protected class here in Seattle will mean that families will not face housing and employment discrimination simply based off their immigration status. Building and maintaining safe and healthy environments is a human right, and one that immigrants should enjoy, just like all other Seattle residents.

What can you do? For ideas on how to support families, women, and children separated from their loved ones and detained at the border look to organizations like Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, NW Immigrants Rights Project, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, International Refugee Assistance Program, El Centro de la Raza, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, Refugee Women’s Alliance, Casa Latina, OneAmerica, Latino Community Fund, Washington CAN, and the many other local and national organizations doing important work to protect immigrants.

Seattle should not continue the practice of detaining and othering families fleeing violence. Seattle should not continue the practice of allowing families and children to live in abhorrent and deadly conditions. Seattle should not “other” immigrants. We can do better. We should do better.



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