Pa. politicians weigh in on ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that separates migrant families

Abbie Hyde protests the practice of separating children from their families outside of the Center City offices of ICE in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Abbie Hyde protests the practice of separating children from their families outside of the Center City offices of ICE in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey called the Trump administration’s policy of separating undocumented migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border “an insult to our values” during a Tuesday morning press call.

“This policy, in my opinion, is straight from the pit of hell. It’s disgusting, it’s outrageous, cruel, (and) inhumane,” he said.

Since May, the Trump administration has pursued a “zero-tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants. All adults who cross the border without documentation are liable for criminal prosecution, while children are being placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Casey, who is up for re-election this year, said separating children from their families poses a grave health risk. He went on to quote statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia warning of developmental dangers to children taken from their families.

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He suggested that President Donald Trump’s administration and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could end the policy whenever they chose.

“I believe they’re doing this somehow to put in place a deterrent policy. To somehow … punish the parent by punishing the child and the parent,” he said. “It’s reprehensible. It is outrageous.”

Casey and the other Democrats in the Senate support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Keep Families Together Act, which would make it illegal to separate undocumented migrant children from their parents — except in instances where the children could be abused or trafficked, among other related exceptions.

“The Feinstein bill that Bob Casey supports would essentially codify ‘catch and release,’ where individuals who break the law and enter our country illegally would be released from custody simply because they come with a child,” wrote Lou Barletta, the Republican candidate for Casey’s Senate seat, in an email to WHYY.

The Keep Families Together Act does not specify that families should be released, but the text does state that “in general, there is a presumption that detention is not in the best interests of families and children.”

“Instead of endorsing catch and release, Congress could override the Flores settlement so we can detain families together while they await expedited hearings,” Barletta said.

Barletta’s comment references a 1997 court settlement that required the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the pre-9/11 agency similar to today’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) to ensure that migrant children are placed in the “least restrictive” setting possible. This settlement was intended to protect migrant children, and it included provisions to keep children in touch with their families and make every effort at family reunification when children were separated from their parents, according to PolitiFact.

The settlement aimed for children to be released to relatives or adult guardians designated by the parents. If none of those alternatives could be found, the children could be placed in federal custody.

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that children could not be placed with their parents in family detention centers under the guidelines of the Flores settlement. Until that point, the Obama administration had used family detention centers — including the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania — for that purpose. After the ruling, the Obama administration opted to simply release migrant families, according to the same PolitiFact article.

Because of the new “zero-tolerance” policy for undocumented migrants crossing the border, the Trump administration pursues criminal charges against every adult. The Flores settlement  prohibits children from accompanying their parents to an adult jail. Therefore, Barletta and other Republicans argue that Congress must repeal the Flores settlement in order to keep children with their parents.

But there are alternatives to criminal prosecution, and the Flores settlement was not intended to be used as justification for the separation of children and their parents, according to the PolitiFact article.

When Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was questioned about the family separation policy on a conservative talk radio show hosted by Hugh Hewitt, he first appeared in favor of the policy and then against.

“This is not my area of expertise, Hugh. I’m going to have to drill down into this and address it,” he said. “And maybe you’re right. Maybe this is happening with a higher frequency than I’ve been aware of, and it is certainly, it’s just not the right thing to be doing,” he said.

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