THE ISSUE

LNP’s Jeff Hawkes reported last week on a restaurant worker, husband and father of three from Manor Township stranded in Mexico, where he’d gone to complete his path toward legal, U.S. permanent residency. Jesus Palacios Herrera, 43, was 24 when he entered the United States illegally “to seek a better life,” Hawkes wrote. Several months ago, eager to obtain legal status, he traveled to “the U.S. consulate at Ciudad Juarez, where he was scheduled for fingerprinting March 27, a medical exam March 28 and an interview March 29,” Hawkes wrote, noting that “these were the final steps required for an immigrant visa and permanent residency.” Instead, he was denied a visa, barring him from returning to Lancaster.

Nearly two decades after doing it the wrong way, Jesus Palacios Herrera was trying to do it the right way.

He had built a life here. He married a Lancaster County native and worked hard. He and his wife have two children: ages 3 and 16 months. Herrera also has an 8-year-old son with another woman.

In February 2018, he received a waiver from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that allows undocumented immigrants to seek permanent residency if deportation would cause extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen — in Herrera’s case, his wife Tiffany. But a U.S. consular official in Mexico ruled that Herrera wasn’t eligible for permanent residency because he might end up using public benefits — a ruling that immigration experts say has become increasingly common during the Trump administration.

In April, Herrera’s attorney sent to the consulate tax records, pay stubs, a letter from Herrera’s employer confirming that he still has a job, and a letter from Herrera’s mother-in-law stating that she would help the family financially if it became necessary. The conclusion: Herrera wasn’t likely to burden taxpayers after all. But his provisional waiver had been revoked, so he’ll need to apply for a new one — a process that’s likely to take at least six months.

Tiffany Herrera told LNP that her children don’t understand why their daddy doesn’t come home. “The situation we’re going through isn’t fair, and it’s ripping families apart,” she said.

Mess of a system

Ripping families apart.

It’s a phrase that’s getting a lot of usage these days, as families seeking asylum are separated at our nation’s southern border, and as parents here for decades illegally are deported, devastating their American-born kids.

Our immigration system is a mess.

“Dreamers,” young people who were brought here illegally as children and now are American in every way but legal status, remain in limbo, uncertain about the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in the U.S. Supreme Court. “I lived here for more than half my life, so this is my home,” Adan Cabrera-Perez, an Elizabethtown High School graduate and soccer player at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, told LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick recently. “I don’t really remember Mexico.” He tries not to be preoccupied by the politics that might determine his fate.

In Lancaster County — dubbed “the refugee capital of the United States” by the BBC — resettlement agencies such as Church World Service deal with a flow of refugees that’s been curtailed since the Trump administration announced it would accept just 30,000 this year, the lowest number since the creation in 1980 of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program.

There are not fewer people seeking refuge from war, persecution, violence and poverty. It’s just that the United States has slammed its doors shut to most of them.

‘Ticking time bomb’

Consider, too, what’s happening at our southern border.

It’s not a crime to seek asylum here but those doing so are being treated like criminals. Worse than criminals.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General issued a report calling on the DHS to “take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” in Border Patrol detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. The accompanying photos showed adults standing cheek by jowl — or lying on floors beneath stiff Mylar blankets — in jam-packed cells. Children had no access to showers, only limited access to changes of clothes and, in some facilities, weren’t getting hot meals. Adults were being fed only bologna sandwiches and hadn’t been allowed to shower for weeks, the report said. Expressing concern about the health and safety of employees and detainees alike, one facility’s senior manager called the situation “a ticking time bomb.”

Suffer the children

Conditions for children in one detention center near El Paso, Texas, were so appalling that the acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection resigned amid a public outcry.

Under federal law, children may be detained in a Border Patrol facility for only 72 hours, but many are being kept in these centers for weeks, in appalling, shameful conditions.

As Atlantic magazine recounted last week, pediatrician Dolly Lucio Sevier visited a Border Patrol warehouse in south Texas and “saw a baby who’d been fed from the same unwashed bottle for days.” She saw children showing signs of malnutrition, sleep deprivation and dehydration, and some “exhibiting clear evidence of psychological trauma.” When she asked the 38 children she was permitted to examine about sanitation, they all told her they hadn’t been allowed to wash their hands or brush their teeth. This was “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease,” she wrote in a medical declaration.

Children being held in icy cold cells where the lights are on 24 hours a day. Children crying out for their parents, children silenced and numbed by trauma — babies suffering on our watch.

We can try to ease our conscience by blaming their parents for seeking refuge in the United States, but that response shows a shocking lack of empathy. What would we do if our children were being faced with conscription into murderous gangs, searing poverty, violence, persecution? We’d go to the ends of the earth to save them.

The American tradition

Likewise, we can blame Jesus Palacios Herrera for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2001. He made a mistake, to be sure. But should his children be punished by being deprived of their father?

We need to stop making excuses for our government’s failures to live up to the American tradition of welcoming the “tempest-tossed,” the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Borders are necessary. But cruelty is unconscionable.

We implore you to contact your representatives in Congress. Demand comprehensive immigration reform, which has been put off repeatedly, and don’t let them tell you that such reform is impossible as a presidential election year nears.

And tell them, please, to demand an end to family separation and better care for the children being detained. Ask them to think of their beloved children — who might judge them someday should they fail to act, as our own children might judge us if we fail to act, too.