On the day after Cecilia Gomez had her day in court here in Las Vegas, one of Nevada’s U.S. Senators joined her Congressional colleagues and immigrants rights activists to demand an end to the aggressive deportation and detention program that separated Gomez from her family nearly two months ago. At a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) declared, “Separating children from our families is unacceptable. It’s inhumane. It’s not who we are.”
What exactly is occurring at the border, at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, and in immigrant communities across America? And how can Congress prevent the kinds of tragedies that nearly ripped Cecilia Gomez’s family apart permanently?
From Las Vegas to South Texas, the humanitarian crisis at our doorstep
Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood near the U.S.-Mexico Border in San Diego to declare a new “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants crossing the border undocumented, including refugees fleeing extreme hardship and parents with young children. About two weeks prior, The New York Times published a report showing that immigrant officials had already separated over 700 children from adults claiming to be their parents since last October, and that 100 of those children were under the age of four.
The Trump administration has claimed this policy of separation will somehow deter other families from crossing the border undocumented. Not only are civil rights activists and a growing number of members of Congress casting doubt on the White House’s rationale, but they’re pointing to evidence of further abuse of immigrants in ICE’s detention system.
In the past year, immigrants have come forward to share stories of being subjected to several months incarcerated without being charged with an actual crime, substandard food and medical care, sexual assault by guards, forced labor, and even mistreatment of young children. At the very least, this growing chorus of outrage suggests that Cecilia Gomez’s story of abuse at the hands of Nevada ICE agents is far from an “isolated incident”. And today, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) promised to fight for legislation to put an end to the cycle of immigrant abuse.
“Let’s be very clear: Government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing families apart.”
– Senator Kamala Harris
In describing the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act that she and Jayapal have recently introduced, Senator Kamala Harris stated the need to ensure the federal government abides by the very values that form the foundation of this nation: “This is about our children, our families, whether we will be a compassionate government or a cruel government. I know we’re better than this. I wish our administration knew that.”
If the DONE Act becomes law, it will not only require stronger oversight of all detention facilities that ICE utilizes, but it will also impose a moratorium on construction of new ICE detention centers. In addition, the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to submit a plan to reduce the number of prison beds by half and direct more immigrants to more humane and cost-effective alternatives to ICE detention.
For Harris, the DONE Act is all about restoring true family values to the nation’s immigration system: “Let’s be very clear: Government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing families apart.”
“When Donald Trump attacks immigrants, he attacks Nevadans. He attacks all of us.”
– Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
.@SenCortezMasto: I will not stand by while this Administration continues to attack immigrant families — he rescinded DACA and TPS … and he is separating kids from their parents. Children can be detained for months at end. pic.twitter.com/3H9Phh9pl7
— Juan Escalante (@JuanSaaa) May 23, 2018
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto also weighed in on the ICE abuse scandals, as well as the ongoing fight to protect DREAMers on DACA and refugees with TPS (or Temporary Protected Status), at today’s press event: “When Donald Trump attacks immigrants, he attacks Nevadans. He attacks all of us.” She then evoked her own family’s history as she vowed to fight back in declaring, “I will not stand by when Donald Trump attacks families like mine.”
Immigrants comprise nearly 20% of Nevada’s population, so we’re particularly affected by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Though Cortez Masto didn’t mention the Gomez case during her remarks, she condemned the ICE raids and family separations that have targeted people like Gomez, immigrants with no criminal records who have been forced out of their homes. According to Cortez Masto, “It is sick. It is wrong. It is against everything we believe in as Americans.”
Cortez Masto then promised that she and other Senate Democrats will continue to demand the Trump administration end these attacks on immigrant families: “We shouldn’t let this administration change our American values, so we are in this fight [for our families] today.”
“Separating children from our families is unacceptable. It’s inhumane. It’s not who we are.”
– Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
The last time either house of Congress took up immigration reform, the Senate couldn’t pass any of the four proposals being considered in February. And that was mainly just for DACA. And Republicans who were previously considered open to comprehensive immigration reform, such as our own Senator Dean Heller (R), voted against the bipartisan attempts to fix DACA and instead embraced Trump’s plan to restrict legal immigration.
Against this backdrop, it won’t be easy for Cortez Masto, Harris, Jayapal, and other concerned legislators to advance bills like the DONE Act. Nonetheless, this is a sign that the plight of immigrants like Cecilia Gomez, immigrants who live in fear of having their families torn apart at any moment, is being noticed by members of Congress. And more importantly, these members of Congress are now joining activists to demand an end to ICE’s culture of abuse.
It may not seem like much, but this growing awareness is a starting point. Perhaps like Cecilia Gomez’s victory in court yesterday, hope may still be alive.