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How one month reshaped the US immigration landscape

It only took 31 days.When people look back at the US immigration debate, they might point to May 2018 as a tur...

Posted: Jun 3, 2018 6:39 PM
Updated: Jun 3, 2018 6:39 PM

It only took 31 days.

When people look back at the US immigration debate, they might point to May 2018 as a turning point -- a month when policies became reality, when words once whispered in private became words shouted in public, when life for immigrant families crossing the border became visibly worse.

There were major events that made national news. And smaller rumblings that could pave the way for seismic shifts.

A caravan crossing the US-Mexico border sparked a push to overhaul asylum policies and stop future groups from getting in.

The President of the United States called immigrant gang members "animals."

A lawyer vowed to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement after hearing people speak Spanish at a restaurant. And a Border Patrol agent questioned a US citizen after she spoke Spanish in a store.

Authorities separated immigrant children from their parents as part of a new "zero tolerance" plan to prosecute everyone caught illegally crossing the border.

Here's a look at these and other immigration developments that played out in the past month -- and where things could go from here:

The caravan crossed the border. Future migrants could face more obstacles.

It took weeks for a caravan of migrants from Central America to make it to the US-Mexico border. And days for them to cross and officially ask for asylum.

Meanwhile, north of the border, the administration swiftly used the caravan to make a fresh push to overhaul immigration laws, decrying what it called "loopholes" that it said allow people to flood the system with frivolous claims.

Advocates counter that international law guarantees the rights of people fleeing persecution to seek asylum, and there's nothing frivolous about it.

What's next:

Hundreds of people from the caravan are in the United States and making their asylum cases. But that can take months -- or even years -- so it will be a while before we learn how they fared.

In a recent congressional hearing, US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna said 205 of 216 caravan members screened so far had passed the "credible fear" threshold -- the first step in proving an asylum case. But in the end, for most people in the caravan the odds of winning asylum are slim.

Activists in Mexico have warned that other migrants trying to make it to the United States will likely face more obstacles now, given the political attention the caravan drew.

Trump called MS-13 members animals. Then the administration doubled down.

At a White House event, President Trump responded to a California sheriff's comments about criminal immigrants, and specifically MS-13, by saying: "We have people coming into this country, or trying to come in. ... You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals."

Like many things Trump says about illegal immigration, it played well with his base but sparked a wave of criticism from Democrats and immigrant rights groups.

Some reports took the comments out of context. Some advocates warned it was a sign that Trump was dehumanizing all immigrants as his administration continued its crackdown.

The next day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders came to her daily press briefing armed with examples of terrible acts committed by members of the notorious street gang. And the White House released a statement decrying the group, using the word "animal" 10 times.

Trump's comments about MS-13 weren't the only words on immigration from his administration that drew attention in May. His chief of staff also said undocumented immigrants are too uneducated and unskilled to fit into American society -- an echo of the past for many immigration historians.

And his education secretary said she thought it was up to local schools and communities to decide whether to report kids and their families to ICE -- prompting a backlash from civil rights groups.

What's next:

MS-13 remains Public Enemy No. 1 for the Trump administration. The President and other officials routinely point to the group as they call for more border security and more deportations, warning that public safety is at risk.

Critics have said this overstates the gang's significance and unfairly stigmatizes millions of undocumented immigrants who have nothing to do with MS-13 or other organized crime. MS-13's roughly 10,000 members in the United States are a fraction of the estimated 1.4 million members of US gangs nationally, according to the FBI. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Lawmakers almost forced a DACA debate. There's still a chance they could.

Moderate Republicans made a push to force a floor debate over the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But a petition needs 218 signatures to circumvent House Republican leadership, and so far, it's five short.

What's next:

The debate over DACA is far from over, and there's still a chance that lawmakers could succeed in reviving the issue and bringing other immigration measures up for debate. But with midterm elections looming, the question remains whether enough members of Congress are willing to navigate the political minefield of immigration reform.

Hearing Spanish fueled a lawyer's racist tirade. And a Border Patrol agent's immigration check.

A lawyer railed against employees and customers he heard speaking Spanish at a New York restaurant, and a video of the outburst went viral. "My guess is they're not documented. So my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country," attorney Aaron Schlossberg said.

Less than a week later, video emerged of a Border Patrol agent in Montana telling a woman he'd asked for her ID after hearing her and a friend "speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it's predominately English-speaking." Footage of that exchange, first reported by a local TV news station, drew national attention to the case.

What's next:

Days after unleashing the racist tirade, the New York lawyer apologized and said in a written statement that he isn't racist. US Customs and Border Protection said it was looking into what happened in the Montana case to make sure the agency's policies were followed.

But beyond the viral videos and their aftermath, these cases raise bigger questions: Given that two-thirds of Americans live in areas where the Border Patrol has extended search authority, are we going to see an uptick in agents stopping people and questioning their immigration status? As our national immigration debate grows increasingly polarized, are tensions boiling over more in stores and restaurants, or is the prevalence of cellphone cameras making it easier to document long-simmering racism?

The US ended deportation protections for nearly 90,000 more people. Even though diplomats advised against it.

The Trump administration announced it was ending temporary protected status for about 86,000 Hondurans who have lived legally in the United States since the 1990s. They have 18 months to leave the country or face possible deportation.

On the heels of this announcement, a congressional investigation found that the administration's decisions to end these protections for Hondurans and more than 300,000 other immigrants went against recommendations from career State Department employees.

What's next:

In addition to Honduras, the administration has already ended temporary protected status, or TPS, for people here from five other countries, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal and Sudan. In July, officials are slated to decide whether to extend TPS for about 1,600 immigrants from Yemen and Somalia.

A Border Patrol agent shot and killed an undocumented immigrant. Then the official account of what happened changed.

Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent in Texas. Initially, officials said the agent was trying to apprehend a group of undocumented immigrants and fired at least one round after coming under attack by people using blunt objects.

Days later, the agency changed its account of what occurred, removing mentions of blunt objects and saying instead that the group had "rushed" the officer after ignoring orders to get on the ground.

What's next:

Speaking to reporters in Guatemala, Gomez's family said they want answers -- and justice.

"It's not fair that they treat them like animals, just because they come from countries less developed," Gomez's aunt said.

The FBI and Texas Rangers are investigating the shooting. Officials have declined to comment further, citing the pending investigation.

Trump called immigration courts corrupt. Even though his administration has been trying to hire more immigration judges.

In an interview with Fox News, Trump suggested it was time to make sweeping changes to what he described as a "corrupt" immigration legal system and questioned why immigrants should have a chance to go through the court system at all.

"Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials?" he said. "Where do these judges come from?"

The President's comments came as his Justice Department continued efforts to hire more judges to help deal with a crushing immigration court backlog of nearly 700,000 cases.

What's next:

It's unclear whether Trump's comments will translate into new policy proposals down the line. Trump didn't explain what he meant by calling the system "corrupt" or specify how his administration planned to change the system. And the Justice Department declined to comment on his remarks.

Eliminating courts and judges would go against policies being carried out by his own administration, and would likely violate the Constitution, international law and federal law.

Children are being separated from their parents as a matter of policy. And officials lost track of 1,500 immigrant kids.

The administration announced that every person caught illegally crossing the border would be referred for prosecution, effectively making it an official policy to separate parents from their children.

"If you're smuggling a child, we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally."

As outrage mounted over this in some corners, another group of immigrant kids drew attention: unaccompanied minors.

Using the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren, activists pointed to congressional testimony from an administration official who said the government couldn't account for nearly 1,500 immigrant children who'd crossed the border alone and been placed in the homes of sponsors.

These are separate issues, but advocates have tied them together, alleging the government can't be trusted to keep track of and protect immigrant children.

What's next:

An ACLU lawsuit over family separation is already making its way through federal courts. And a group of civil rights lawyers has asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to step in. If these efforts are successful, officials may have to change course. But the administration is sticking to its guns, defending the policy and arguing that it's no different than what happens when anyone is accused of a crime and arrested.

In the meantime, officials are evaluating whether children caught crossing the border could be held on military bases.

The administration has pushed back against claims that 1,500 children are missing. Steve Wagner, a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services, said check-in phone calls in those cases simply weren't answered -- probably because adults caring for the kids were also undocumented.

"You can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling them on the phone," he said. "But there's no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids."

Activists remain unconvinced.

This didn't all start with Trump.

We've had a few important reminders over the past month that some of the most controversial issues in the immigration debate didn't start with President Trump.

An ACLU report documented what the organization says were hundreds of allegations that US Customs and Border Protection agents abused minors in custody from 2009 to 2014 -- during President Barack Obama's presidency. The ACLU accuses CBP of not taking complaints seriously, not doing enough to investigate them and not holding officials accountable.

In a statement, the agency said the allegations were false and baseless.

"CBP strongly disagrees with the assertions and conclusions made by the ACLU report, which equates allegations with fact and flatly ignores reforms made by CBP as well as oversight conducted by outside independent agencies over the last decade," the statement said.

And then there was this photo of children in immigration custody:

It spread like wildfire on social media, with many advocates and journalists tying it to the Trump administration's recent policy shifts. But the photo actually shows two unaccompanied minors in detention in 2014 -- also during Obama's presidency.

What's next:

Immigrant rights groups say the history of these practices is all the more reason to push for officials to change course. And advocates are likely to continue efforts to highlight -- and protest -- how immigrant kids are treated while they're in custody.

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