Asylum seekers are not breaking the law. Trump is.

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A woman, part of the caravan of Central American migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border, prays at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A woman, part of the caravan of Central American migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border, prays at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Parents and children who have walked 1,000 miles to ask for asylum are not breaking United States laws by crossing the border, no matter what President Donald Trump says.

Trump’s administration, on the other hand, has repeatedly ignored or flouted the laws that Congress has enacted on immigration, which explains why Trump keeps losing in court.

Rather than tear gassing children, the administration should do its job by providing the personnel and space required to process asylum claims as set out by law. Instead the administration is intentionally creating backups of asylum seekers at the border.

The backups started before Trump’s pre-election warnings of a dangerous invading caravan. (Never mind that many of the invaders were outfitted in diapers or flip-flops.) In late September, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General reported that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers at ports of entry had fueled an increase in illegal border crossings.

Of course, none other than former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had encouraged adult asylum seekers to cross at ports of entry to avoid prosecution and separation from their children. Parents blocked by backlogs at ports of entry were more likely to cross illegally, the IG explains, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis of family separations spawned by Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy.

The law allows even those who have crossed illegally to seek asylum once they’re here.

There’s no guarantee that asylum will be granted. Sessions made it even harder to win asylum by excluding victims of domestic violence from consideration. But immigrants are guaranteed the chance to seek asylum through a process enshrined in law.

Our asylum laws are rooted in post-World War II responses to the shameful rejection by this country and others of refugees from the Holocaust.

Common sense and common decency tell us that only those fleeing genuinely desperate circumstances would leave their homes on foot for a 1,000 mile-plus trek with young children in tow.

But now immigrants fleeing the criminal gangs that Trump has repeatedly evoked are damned, under his law-defying policies, if they follow the rules and damned if they don’t.

Trump, who says U.S. border agents lobbed some kind of lite tear-gas into Mexico Sunday (“a very minor form . . . very safe”), clearly relishes inflaming his base by stoking fears of a brown-skinned “invasion.” We’re therefore expecting no real solutions from him.

A well-meaning leader would pursue a couple of options:

  • Work with the international community and our neighbors in the Americas to relieve the violence and crushing poverty that drive immigration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to the U.S. This country’s insatiable demand for illegal drugs is probably the biggest factor fueling criminal gangs and violence in Central America, where the U.S. has a history of supporting repressive, corrupt governments.
  • Work with Congress to reform immigration laws. From the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to advocates for the undocumented, there is widespread support for revamping a system that makes it too hard to legally immigrate and keeps too many people, including the children of immigrants, in the shadows and exploited by human smugglers and unscrupulous employers. If our standards for awarding asylum need to be changed, that is the job of Congress not the president.

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Cross-posted from the Herald-Leader via the Kentucky Press News Service.

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