CHICAGO — For many years, well before Donald Trump was elected, immigration hawks complained about the practice of so-called "catch and release."
These observers just couldn't understand how migrants who were caught living illegally in the country, or attempting to enter, weren't just bounced back to their country of origin right away instead of being given an opportunity to "disappear into the shadows."
But that's not how it works.
Research long has shown that the vast majority of migrants who have been released into the U.S. show up for their court cases in front of immigration judges.
In fiscal year 2019, immigration judges decided a record 67,406 asylum cases, more than twice as many as in 2014. Even though 69 percent of those cases actually resulted in asylum, 99 percent of migrants appeared for the opportunity to plead their case, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a nonpartisan research project that tracks staffing, spending and enforcement activities of the federal government.
And the time between arriving in the country and actually getting a determination had little to do with how faithful the immigrants were. Asylum applicants waited on average 1,030 days, or nearly three years, for their cases to be decided. A quarter of them even waited 1,421 days, or nearly four years, for their asylum decision.
Just imagine nervously waiting for the final decision on your immigration status and hearing news of people being deported after reporting for their regular check-in meetings. Add to that the headlines about the Trump administration trying to prevent others from even attempting to seek asylum. It must be terrifying.
It has to be, but the alternative — being held in immigration custody for any amount of time — is even worse.
A 40-year-old native of Angola and citizen of France died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody days before the new year. He had been in custody since early November and was taken Dec. 12 to the Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque for "evaluation of emaciation, altered mental status and possible sepsis," according to an ICE news release. The man died of a bowel obstruction.
He was the fourth person to die in U.S. custody since October, according to BuzzFeed, and just the latest grim reminder of how migrant men, women and children fare while in the care of the U.S. government.
An earlier BuzzFeed investigation detailed a Department of Homeland Security memo that cited detainees receiving the wrong medicine, getting treatments only after long delays and suffering from what was described by a source as "grossly negligent" care.
Some detainees grew urgently sicker, while others were so distraught that they seriously lacerated themselves or committed suicide. An 8-year-old boy was misdiagnosed with swimmer's ear when he was actually suffering from an infection inside the skull. The misdiagnosis cost the child part of the skull bone behind his forehead.
In the 2019 fiscal year, eight people died while in custody. Thousands more reportedly grew sicker than when they arrived or suffered other abuses such as lack of fresh water or food, lack of sanitary products like toilet paper or facilities in which to shower. Plus, they allegedly endured routine intimidation, use of physical force and sexual assault.
Why in the world would people who are awaiting an immigration court date show up for routine check-ins and for actual court dates when they legitimately could feel they are at risk for being immediately deported or put into the hellscape that is federal immigration custody, according to countless media investigations?
Why not just slip away and start fresh somewhere under a fake Social Security number, in an attempt to simply dodge or circumvent the system altogether?
People who come to the U.S. fleeing the violence, repression or poverty of their home countries believe in the American legal system, which promises justice for all — especially the tired, the poor and those yearning to breathe free.
They believe in the promise of an America that will give them their day in court and, perhaps, the opportunity to eventually make a life here.
When you think about it, these seekers may have even stronger and deeper faith in the ideal of American justice than those who dehumanize them by wanting to eradicate, cage or "catch and release" them like animals.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @estherjcepeda.
Washington Post Writers Group