Friday’s protest outside the United States Attorney’s Office was as an opportunity to speak out against separating children from their parents at the border. The protest was organized by ACLU’s People Power Campaign.
I went to the protest because I am horrified by this dramatic and unreasonable change in our immigration policy. I believe we should be a welcoming country. We should create a path to citizenship for the Dreamers; we should protect Rhode Islanders like Lilian Calderon who are trying to avail themselves of immigration processes to legalize their status; and we should not separate children from their parents.
Two protesters were invited to speak with United States Attorney Stephen Dambruch about our concerns. Helen Conforti invited me to come with her to the meeting. I am quite impressed that our United States Attorney accepted the protest’s request to meet with us. This is the kind of responsiveness we should all expect from our public officials. Our ensuing conversation was respectful, and we listened to each other while stating our cases.
Mr Dambruch explained the administration’s position that the policy is not “child separation,” but rather “zero tolerance.” The new part of this policy is that everyone who crosses the border without permission is arrested and prosecuted for a criminal act. Before this sudden change, United States policy was to charge crimes only against people returning to the United States after having been previously deported, and that non-citizens crossing into the United States for the first time were routinely sent back (with their kids) but not arrested. Now, everyone who crosses the border without permission is arrested – families are being separated and the adults are prosecuted and imprisoned.
United States Attorney Dambruch presented this as a value neutral policy – when parents are arrested for any crime, child welfare or a relative is called to take the child because jail or detention is no proper place for a child. Helen and I asserted that the United States should be able to develop a policy that doesn’t traumatize families, keeping parents and their children together. Currently, parents are not permitted the choice even of voluntarily returning to their home country in order to remain together with their child.
We could and should change this policy easily.
Helen shared her personal story with Mr Dambruch. She was born in the United States as a citizen child of undocumented parents (who have since normalized their immigration status). She knows her life would have been different if she had been torn away from her parents and home. She discussed a Psychology Today article that explores “the irreparable harm caused by breaking up families. Prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations like being forcibly separated from a parent, is known as toxic stress.”
We discussed that the United States is effectively transforming children who will grow to despise our government, as well as promote an international reputation as a country that is intolerant.
We respectfully asked the United States Attorney to please share our concerns with U.S. Attorney General Sessions. He agreed to discuss a summary of our conversation with his colleagues in Washington, DC. He also wanted us to understand that his responsibility is to enforce the law; he said that he does not make the policy decisions that are governing this debate. We asked him to please use his power and position to advocate for a different policy because the current United States policy is cruel and wrong.
During our conversation, Mr Dambruch also let us know that the zero tolerance policy was important to stop the flow of fentanyl into our state. Mexican fentanyl, he explained, is killing Rhode Islanders in the overdose epidemic. We talked about that. Even if some of the fentanyl involved in overdose deaths here in Rhode Island came from outside the United States from Mexico, this “zero tolerance” policy is not an effective deterrent. Our conversation turned to the causes of the overdose epidemic, and Mr Danbruch rightly took credit for a recent successful prosecution of a local Rhode Island doctor for improperly prescribing opioid medications.
I know federal and state prosecutors have important authority and power, and that it can and should be wielded to protect us. I applaud and support such actions. We see this authority every day when prosecutors initiate consumer protection, civil rights, public safety, and economic fraud cases. But a misdirected enforcement policy can also be used to take away basic rights, as is happening with the current immigration policy.
I asked the United States Attorney to do more pro-active prosecution and less enforcement of immigration laws as crimes. We acknowledged that Rhode Island does not have as much criminal immigration enforcement as occurs in border states. But the situation of Lilian Calderon, a Rhode Islander who was in the process of pursuing the process of legally normalizing her immigration status, only to be arrested and wrongly separated from her two children. Even today, her children are still recovering from the month-long separation from their mother.
Here is an article with important background information about the new “zero tolerance” policy. I look forward to more opportunities to expose, and to work to stop, this immoral immigration policy.
Here’s a video shot shortly after Kislak and Conforti left their meeting with Dambruch: