“The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility. … Not on my watch.”
“If you cross the border illegally, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
-Attorney General Sessions
Smuggle: To import or export secretly contrary to the law and especially without paying duties imposed by law.
Refugee: One that flees; especially a person who flees a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
-Inscription in pedestal of Statue of Liberty (from a poem by Emma Lazarus)
From the first moment of his campaign, when he decried illegal immigration from Mexico by characterizing the immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” President Trump has made border control and restrictions on immigration his principal concern and objective. That priority was accentuated in April when the administration began to separate parents from children when families were apprehended attempting to enter the country illegally. The humanitarian outcry against this policy was swift and loud, even including some Trump supporters (most notably some evangelicals), and after about six weeks, the president rescinded the policy.
But the issue and the president’s perspective and attitude are ongoing matters of concern deserving of public discourse and debate. Here are some facts that may not be clear from the haze of media coverage and partisan shouting:
- The separation of children from their parents is not required by any existing law or regulation. The short-lived policy was a means devised by the Trump administration to deter attempts to cross the border illegally.
- The Obama administration had used its own aggressive policy to thwart the illegal entry of those seeking to immigrate to the United States, but it had not engaged in the separation of children from their parents. Instead, through lawful court proceedings, from 2009 to 2015, the Obama administration deported more than 2.5 million individuals who were found to be in the country illegally. That number does not include those who were turned away at the border or who “self-deported.” In fact, Obama deported more immigrants than the combined total of all of the presidents in the 20th century. He was so “successful” in those efforts that he was dubbed the “Deporter in Chief” by immigration groups.
- The countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are rife with serious, violent crime. Many parts of those Central American countries are essentially lawless states, lacking in any government control of criminal gangs that terrorize the populace and murder any individuals who represent a threat to their enterprises. Escape from this reign of terror in each of those countries is the primary, if not the sole, cause of the current spate of attempted immigration.
- The incidence of infiltration by MS-13 gang members in the current immigration wave is minimal, if it isn’t non-existent. Most MS-13 gang members are recruited from those already residing in the U.S. In fact, from 2012-2017, out of approximately 45,400 unaccompanied minors who illegally sought entry to the U.S., only 56 were MS-13 gang members.
- Illegal entry into the U.S. is a misdemeanor (in violation of a law from the 1950s). Almost all other misdemeanors in the U.S. result in a fine and/or less than a year in jail upon conviction. Almost no misdemeanors subject the defendants to pre-trial detention.
- Seeking entry to the U.S. as a refugee seeking asylum is not a crime. Anyone claiming to be a refugee, whether apprehended at a border checkpoint or elsewhere on the border is entitled to apply for asylum.
- The oft-cited Flores settlement resulted from an immigration case from the 1990s. Together with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, courts have interpreted the settlement to prohibit immigrant children and their families from being detained for more than 20 days.
- Nothing in existing law requires the federal government to separate immigrant children from their parents. To the contrary, doing so is an implicit violation of existing law as interpreted by the courts.
- “Zero tolerance,” the term used by the administration to justify the separation of children from their parents, is not required by existing law, and would violate existing law if the policy is enforced to deny refugee immigrants the right to file for asylum status.
- ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that polices the border, is not required by law to do anything beyond that which the federal government directs it to do. ICE does not set policy. The president and his cabinet officers (the Department of Homeland Security for ICE) set the policies, and they are restricted by existing law as described above.
Those are the facts; now here are some opinions:
- The MS-13/illegal immigration claim is a demagogic tactic intended to scare the uninformed and inflame the passions of those who are looking for scapegoats or are otherwise angry about their lot in life. “Illegal immigrants” may be the same people who mow our lawns, collect our trash, clean our homes, change the towels and bedsheets in our hotels, and bus the tables and wash the dishes at the restaurants where we dine. Percentage-wise, far fewer of them engage in crime than do those of us who are lawful residents/citizens.
- Donald Trump is a bigot. He may not believe that he is, just as he may not believe that he lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, or that climate change is real, or that Russia sought to throw the election to him. But he knows what he is saying and what he is doing. He is not ignorant of the resulting impact of those words and deeds.
- Trump is also a liar. He lies the way most people breathe.
- Supporters of Trump fall into one of several camps regarding the immigration issue:
a. They know he is lying but they excuse his lies because he is so good on issues they really care about (e.g., evangelical concerns like abortion, lower taxes on corporations and the super-rich, bringing back jobs in defunct industries like coal).
b. They know he is exaggerating the truth (they don’t call it lying), but they believe illegal immigration is a danger to the integrity of the country and must be curtailed.
c. They believe him because they see what has been happening in Europe with the massive influx of Muslim refugees from Syria and don’t want that kind of crisis to develop in the U.S.
d. They are ignorant of the truth about immigration and trust him because he relates to them.
e. They like the way he talks about making America great again and don’t care about how he makes it happen.
f. They are also bigots.
5. Ultimately, we—all of us—are America, and the country under Trump is our country. If we believe in the sentiment expressed in the Lazarus poem, we must reject Trump. If we don’t resist his efforts to change the way we relate to those who are “tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free,” we will lose our country’s ideals and become no better than he is. The choice, ultimately, is ours. It’s our country, and it’s time to make it truly great again.