Taylor Batten

Beyond the fight over the wall, the human cost mounts

A girl from Honduras waits for a present given by a nongovernmental organization outside a shelter set up for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, on Christmas Day.
A girl from Honduras waits for a present given by a nongovernmental organization outside a shelter set up for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, on Christmas Day. AP

All the focus on immigration lately has been around the standoff between President Trump and Democrats over a border wall, and the partial government shutdown that dispute has spawned.

That’s understandable, and it’s unconscionable that Trump would use as pawns thousands of employees in federal departments that have nothing to do with immigration or homeland security.

But the United States faces fundamental issues around immigration policy that go far beyond whether a wall is built along part of the border with Mexico. Namely, that our policy is out of date and our enforcement of it is inhumane, and increasingly so. Americans can legitimately disagree over what rules should govern immigration into the country. But the current system is heartless.

Consider just a few recent examples:

Hania Aguilar, 13, was kidnapped outside her home in Lumberton on Nov. 5. Her body was found weeks later several miles away in a body of water near a rural road.

Her funeral was Dec. 8, but at least one important person wasn’t there: her father. He was stuck in Guatemala, denied a temporary visa that would have allowed him to come to North Carolina to say goodbye to his daughter. U.S. officials worried Noe Aguilar would not return to Guatemala, and a State Department spokeswoman said officials were merely “ensuring the integrity and security of our country’s borders.”

Aguilar had no negative immigration history and had no intention of staying in the U.S. He simply wanted to kiss his daughter goodbye, his lawyer said.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno came to the U.S. in 1994. He was an upstanding N.C. resident, caring for his wife who suffers from lupus and has had heart surgery. For all of 2018, he lived in the basement of his Durham church, a sanctuary from deportation. Then, immigration officials entrapped him, inviting him to their offices on Nov. 23 to take the next step toward deferred deportation. When he arrived, they tackled him and arrested him. He was quickly deported, leaving his sick wife and U.S.-citizen son.

An 8-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl died while in Customs and Border Patrol custody last month.

My sister-in-law, Melissa Johns, recently spent a week at the border through the Immigration Justice Campaign helping women seeking asylum in the U.S. These women had legitimate claims but didn’t know how to effectively present their cases. Without help from volunteer lawyers, she says, “most would have been unfairly sent back to horrible dangers.”

She wrote to family and friends, and in an op-ed Monday in USA Today, about her experience at the detention center that housed 2,400 women and children seeking asylum. She recounted horrific stories of women she met: One whose husband was killed after missing one monthly “rent” payment to the MS13 gang. One who, after she protested against the Nicaraguan government, had her life threatened by police. One who had been beaten and raped by her husband weekly for a decade.

“Each migrant I spoke with had a legitimate asylum claim, but not one articulated her claim in a way that would meet the legal standards,” Johns said.

“The vagaries of luck on who gets support and who doesn’t haunt me. And the barriers the Trump administration is placing between asylum seekers and their rights under U.S. and international law are awful.”

Advocacy groups and volunteers helping these asylum seekers, she says, “make the difference between life and death for the women, men and children they serve.”

America’s immigration system has been broken for years and both parties have failed to fix it. A resolution of the shutdown will be only the beginning of a much more challenging task.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com
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