Federal Magistrate Judge Ronald G. Morgan is in his 60s, with a bright-pink face and a crisp, friendly manner — though lately he has been making disconcerting little mistakes in court. He has spent eight years on the bench in Brownsville, a small Texas city on the U.S.-Mexico border. Morgan knows how to run a court smoothly, but during a morning session I attended in early May, he announced that he’d just dealt with 35 defendants — all at one time — when the actual number was 40. And after the proceedings, he forgot to pronounce their guilt. Marshals had already led them out, so Morgan sheepishly had to call the 40 defendants back to the courtroom to correct his error. These days, he seems distracted and troubled.
That is understandable. In late April, magistrates’ courts in Brownsville suddenly turned into “zero tolerance” factories for criminalizing migrants, many of whom have no prior criminal record. Many are from murderously violent countries in Central America and have fled to the U.S. seeking asylum, and they often arrive with children in tow. It used to be rare to charge migrants seeking asylum with crimes. If they did so, they were put into detention with their children while they pursued their claims. Or they were released with supervision — along with their children. The best interests of the children were considered paramount, and those interests including keeping families together.
But now, in federal courts like Morgan’s, not only are parents are finding themselves charged with the crime of “illegal entry,” but the government is breaking up families, sending children to detention centers, often hundreds of miles from their mothers and fathers, or to distant foster homes.