Claire R. Thomas, Director, of the Asylum Clinic and an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School || Credit: Claire R. Thomas

THOMAS: Let Us Never Look Away

By Claire R. Thomas

In the early morning hours, men, women, and children fleeing their country and seeking protection washed up on American soil. They had survived an arduous journey halfway around the world. They were shivering and wet from the cold water and from malnourishment. Their images appeared on the front page of newspapers, and they entered into the everyday lives of Americans for a brief, fleeting moment on the evening news. They were then quickly separated by sex, sent to different states, and detained indefinitely in local jails in remote locations. Many were deported. Some languished for almost four years behind bars, away from media attention and the knowledge or compassion of the American public, while their legal cases dragged out. The had committed no crime. The U.S. government insisted on expedited hearings and prolonged detention during appeals to send a strong message to deter further “illegal immigration.”

This event, the wreckage of the Golden Venture off of The Rockaways in Queens, happened twenty-five years ago this month. The hundreds of Chinese fleeing persecution on this ship were used as a test case by the U.S. government for detaining asylum-seekers indefinitely in county jails in remote locations, while pushing through their hearings in an effort to expedite their deportations.

Today, little has changed. In its latest rendition of political theatre, the Trump Administration engages in state-sponsored kidnapping of immigrant children, some infants under the age of one, from their parents. While parents are criminally prosecuted for the misdemeanor of illegal entry, their children are put into the custody of different federal agencies with little to no coordination. There is no plan for reunification. The ensuing chaos captivates our attention as being incompatible with human rights and basic decency and has led to an enormous public outcry, reprobation by all living former First Ladies, and bipartisan political support for an intervention in a short period of time. The likely outcome will be to revert to the status quo of “family detention,” an offshoot of the detention of asylum-seekers, which has been revamped and strengthened under each subsequent Administration since the survivors of the Golden Venture shipwrecked on U.S. shore. 

Family detention, or the civil incarceration of immigrant parents and children who are seeking asylum, is not a remedy. Immigrant communities and advocates have been speaking out against family detention for decades. Detention facilities, including those for family units, are operated by private prison corporations like Core Civic and Geo Group in lucrative contracts with the federal government to profit from the misery of the most vulnerable. Such facilities are rife with forced labor, sexual assault, medical neglect, deaths in custody, unsafe water, little oversight and no accountability. They are not safe nor appropriate for adults, let alone for children.

Since the men, women, and children of the Golden Venture reached Queens, U.S. immigration law has only become more draconian towards those seeking asylum. Introduced in 1996, expedited removal allows low-level immigration enforcement officials to deport individuals without a hearing before an immigration judge and has been found to inadequately screen for and protect asylum seekers caught up in its grip.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security and its component agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Family separations and deportations happen every day to Queens families when an immigrant parent or guardian is apprehended by ICE. That parent is disappeared into a private prison facility, often in other states, thousands of miles from where their children are located.

Further, there is no appointed counsel in immigration removal proceedings, meaning that everyone, even a child, must find her own attorney. Families and individuals alike are doomed to fail if forced to plead their asylum claims while detained. Asylum seekers experience isolation, trauma, depression, and feelings of utter hopelessness while trapped in an environment filled with uncertainty. Further, asylum cases require complex legal analysis, evidence, and corroboration, all of which become exponentially more difficult in a detained setting.

In the past twenty-five years, the U.S. government has continued to argue that without detention, asylum seekers will not appear for their deportation hearings. This is simply not true. Studies have shown that alternatives to detention, such as case management programs, regular check-ins, phone calls, and even electronic ankle monitors, are more cost effective, keep families together, and reduce the long-term impacts of psychological trauma felt by family separation or prolonged detention.

The men, women, and children of the Golden Venture deserved better. America failed them and forgot their story. Let us not allow the pain of immigrant families to fade from media attention. Let us commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of asylum seekers by pledging to do better for those who have lost their countries and sought protection in the United States. Let us turn our outrage into action. 

Educate yourself and others by learning the facts about immigration and asylum law. Reject the narrative of criminality of immigrants and asylum-seekers that the current Administration markets. Contact your city, state, and federal elected officials and let them know that the separation of immigrant families is an issue important to you. Pledge to defund the private prison industrial complex that reaps profits from detaining and destroying immigrant families. Volunteer with an immigrant-rights organization and support your local immigrant-owned businesses.

No one knows what happened to the minor children who were aboard the Golden Venture. Let us ensure the children of this Trump-created human rights crisis are never so forgotten. Let us never look away.

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