SANTA TERESA – Amid a growing backlash against the new policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally, Gov. Susana Martinez firmly backed the zero tolerance effort in a short interview during her visit to the border this week.
“We don’t let people who break the law continue to be out breaking the law simply because they have children,” she said Monday in response to a question from the Journal about the policy.
“As a prosecutor for 25 years, if your parent went out and robbed a store with a gun and stole money because they needed to buy drugs, we arrested that individual and that individual went to jail and arrangements were made for that child, the best arrangements.”
Asked whether she was comparing parents who cross the border illegally with their kids to people who commit armed robbery, the governor said, “No, of course I’m not, but I’m just telling you we do that to American citizens, American citizens who break the law that way.”
Martinez has a been a staunch supporter of tougher border enforcement. She also has been a strong advocate for children, pushing for harsher penalties for child abuse, including an expansion of Baby Brianna’s Law.
The separation of immigrant children from their parents has drawn criticism from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a statement in opposition citing “highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm.”
A federal judge in California last week allowed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to proceed, challenging the separation of two mothers from their children and seeking a nationwide injunction.
The federal government began taking children from their parents at the border earlier this year as part of a pilot program in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy as arrests of people crossing the border illegally have increased. Border Patrol agents arrested more than 50,000 people in May, for the third month in a row, for illegally crossing the Mexican border. Many of them, from Central America, were seeking asylum and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents when they arrived.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you, as required by law,” Sessions said in announcing the crackdown.
The governor, who was in Santa Teresa for the opening of a manufacturing plant Monday, said she backs those prosecutions.
“Do we know and can we verify when they come across with a child in their hand that child belongs to that adult, or are we actually becoming complacent to human trafficking?” Martinez asked.
But immigrant advocates and attorneys said the federal government does have the means to determine whether children and parents entering the country are related, including DNA testing.
“You have both the child and the parent sitting right in front of you. It is extremely feasible to take a swab,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an organization that helps migrants and refugees in the border region.
“Let’s not use bogus examples to try and exaggerate what is a very different issue that is taking children away from bona fide parents.”
The governor said parents can be reunited with their children once they post bail as they await immigration proceedings, though Garcia said the vast majority of detained immigrants do not have access to lawyers who can request bail or the funds to cover the cost.
Martinez said those parents can avoid having their children taken away from them simply by not crossing the border illegally.