Galveston County residents, groups and faith leaders are calling for an end to a federal immigration policy under fire for separating children and parents found entering the country illegally.
Critics of the practice marched in Galveston last week and were planning another protest later this month meant to raise awareness of a situation many view as a humanitarian crisis unfolding at the U.S. border, they said. At least one religious leader said he planned to share his opinion of the amoral nature of the policy with his congregation and encourage action.
Tens of thousands of parents and children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have in recent years been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally with stories of fleeing drug cartels, extreme poverty and gang violence. The United States can’t send them back over the border unless they are Mexican citizens, and instead must refer their case to an immigration judge, according to The Associated Press.
The Trump administration in May announced a “zero tolerance” policy to take a harsher stance on illegal crossings at the Mexico border by prosecuting adults and, in turn, separating them from their children. The practice had apparently been in place for several months before the announcement, but came into sharper view in recent weeks.
An estimated 2,000 children are being held in facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, many in Texas, while their parents or accompanying adults face legal proceedings. Supporters, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have argued the policy serves as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
But the policy drew sharp criticisms from all corners, including many local residents who view it as cruel and an affront to American values.
‘IT’S VERY SERIOUS’
The country should find reasonable solutions to address immigration, but the separation policy is inhumane and ineffective, said Robert Quintero, deputy director for District 8 of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which covers 32 counties in southeast Texas.
“We’re all for abiding by the laws, but there’s no reason to tear apart families,” said Quintero, who marched on the Seawall last week against the policy. “Ripping up families just to get a point across or using them as a bargaining chip for building a wall is wrong. It’s inhumane.”
Local faith leaders weighed in Tuesday, calling the policy obscene and amoral.
“It’s a very serious, serious problem,” said the Rev. Ray Pinard, associate pastor at Moody Methodist Church in Galveston. “To separate children form their parents isn’t right. We can do a lot better.”
It’s a tradition of the United Methodist Church to offer guidance and opinion on different matters and encourage its members to “prayerfully come to their own opinion,” said Rev. Jerry Neff, senior pastor at Moody Methodist Church.
“We trust them to do the right thing,” Neff said.
‘CLEAR AND WISE COMMAND’
During a meeting Tuesday, church leaders had discussed the policy and their staff members’ moral stances on the issue, he said. Neff planned to raise the discussion with his congregation, provide his opinion and encourage them to contact their elected leaders to share their views.
“Our church is open to all people,” Neff said. “It’s up to my members to determine what they believe on this, but my opinion is I think it’s our moral responsibility to be the voice for those who may not have a voice.”
“It grieves me to see families being separated. I just don’t believe that reflects the values of this nation. Most of these people are not trying to enter illegally, they’re knocking on our front door seeking asylum. We have the right to expect a secured border, but this is not the way. This is obscene.”
The government policy felt vengeful and does not reflect the family values the country espouses, he said. That some officials had used verses of Bible Scripture to justify the policy was wrong, he said.
Sessions said many of the recent criticisms were not “fair or logical and some are contrary to law,” The Associated Press has reported.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
‘CONGRESS TO VOTE SOON’
Taken out of context, the Bible has been used to justify atrocious acts, including slavery, but those justifications ignored the overall text, Neff said.
“You can’t frame an opinion and particularly government policy based on two or three verses of Scripture while ignoring the fact that the majority of the Scripture talks about how we are to care for the orphaned and widows, to care for the powerless,” Neff said. “I suggest Mr. Sessions go to some more Bible studies.”
Texas senators this week said they opposed the policy, but neither called for the Trump administration to immediately end the practice.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, said Tuesday on Twitter opposition to “zero-tolerance immigration” was the same as “tolerance of illegal immigration without a plan to enforce the law.”
“We will provide both a way to enforce the law and a humane and compassionate family unification proposal for Congress to vote on soon,” Cornyn said.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday he was announcing legislation this week to keep families detained together and increase the number of federal immigration judges from 375 to 750 to more quickly adjudicate cases, he said.
“Once their cases have been adjudicated — under my legislation, in no longer than 14 days — those who meet the legal standard should be granted asylum and those who don’t should be immediately returned to their home country,” Cruz said.
Rep. Randy Weber said the United States should strengthen its border policy, but refrained from casting blame.
“Let me be clear from the start: no one wants to see children separated from their parents,” Weber said. “We must secure our border first and foremost, and in doing so, we must shore up our immigration policy and eliminate loopholes so we are not back in this same situation years from now. In the process, we will do everything possible to keep families protected and together.”
‘THE DEMOCRATS’ FAULT’
Neither mentioned President Donald Trump in their statements. With backlash mounting — from former first ladies and national evangelical leaders — Trump has insisted Democrats are to blame for the policy in which children are being held in fenced cages away from parents, according to The Associated Press.
“I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said Monday, citing more lenient policies that had not charged all migrants who had crossed illegally, according to The Associated Press.
While Trump’s new immigration policy doesn’t call for families to be separated, as pointed out by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the policy makes separations inevitable, according to The Associated Press.
In April, Sessions announced a plan: The United States would have “zero tolerance” for illegal crossings. If a person doesn’t arrive at an appropriate port of entry to claim asylum, the crossing is deemed illegal and prosecuted even if the person does not have a criminal history. With the adult detained and facing prosecution, any minors accompanying them are taken away, according to The Associated Press.
Trump has repeatedly said Democrats are to blame and cited a “horrible law” that separates families. But no law mandates that parents must be separated from their children at the border, and it’s not a policy Democrats have pushed or can change alone as the minority in Congress, according to The Associated Press.
But White House spokesman Hogan Gidley has said any crisis belongs to Democrats because they are the ones who rejected Trump’s initial immigration plan, according to reports.
‘NOT IN BEST INTEREST OF KIDS’
Lisa Blair, a Galveston restaurant owner, marched last week with dozens of other residents against the policy and planned to participate in future rallies, she said.
While she was the board chairwoman of The Children’s Center in Galveston, the center had taken in unaccompanied migrant minors, she said. She had a view then of the issues children faced who had fled violence in their home countries, she said.
“In most cases, they were traumatized because of what they’re leaving and they’re here and didn’t really have anyone” but the center, she said.
The children often needed social work, therapy and transitional services, which the center tried to provide with its available resources, Blair said.
But the situation was different because the children had arrived alone, she said. That the government would intentionally separate parents and children was an outrage, she said.
“This is not in the best interest of the kids,” Blair said. “I’m horrified at the thought of what’s happening.”