[News] The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity
news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 21 13:56:08 EDT 2018
The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity
By Daniel Denvir - June 20, 2018
seemed to speak for themselves, perfectly capturing the heartbreaking
brutality of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. In one,
two girls, likely Central American, detained at a US Customs and Border
Protection center in Nogales, Arizona, sleep face down on the floor of a
Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter and host of the liberal “Pod
Save America” podcast, tweeted
“Look at these pictures. This is happening right now, and the only
debate that matters is how we force our government to get these kids
back to their families as fast as humanly possible.”
It turned out, however, that the photos were from 2014. Favreau’s boss,
President Barack Obama, was engaged in his own harsh crackdown on
Central American asylum seekers — an error Trump was unsurprisingly
quick to point out on Twitter: “Democrats mistakenly tweet 2014 pictures
from Obama’s term showing children from the Border in steel cages. They
thought it was recent pictures in order to make us look bad, but
backfires. Dems must agree to Wall and new Border Protection for good of
What neither Favreau nor Trump likely grasped was how perfectly the
imbroglio encapsulated the confusion and amnesia that pervade mainstream
debate over Trump’s immigration policies.
On the one hand, Favreau’s error is a hopeful one: liberals, politicians
and ordinary Americans alike, are outraged at Trump’s unbridled racism
and cruelty, rallying to the cause of DREAMers threatened with losing
their legal authorization to remain in the United States, mobilizing at
in defense of those targeted by the Muslim ban, and pushing their
elected officials to resist deportations through state and local
But most every horrific measure taken by Trump has a policy precedent in
similar, if less breathtakingly inhumane, actions taken by his
establishment predecessors — predecessors who, alongside the nativist
right and their mouthpieces on Fox News and talk radio, helped move the
conservative Overton Window
on immigration so far to the right that by November 2016 it perfectly
framed Donald Trump.
The images and stories that have captured headlines in recent days
depict a barbarically cruel anti-immigrant agenda from Trump, rightfully
moving many to grief and anger and perhaps to action. But if we want to
stop Trump’s deportation machine, we have to confront the key role
Democrats played alongside establishment Republicans in creating it.
It’s the only way to halt the spiral of anti-immigrant cruelty that
brought us to the horrific images of family separation we see today.
Favreau did tweet an admission of his error. But in doing so he made
another, more substantial one. “These awful pictures are from 2014, when
the government’s challenge was reconnecting unaccompanied minors who
showed up at the border with family or a safe sponsor,” wrote Favreau.
“Today, in 2018, the government is CREATING unaccompanied minors by
tearing them away from family at the border.”
That’s a partial and highly misleading description of Obama immigration
policy circa 2014. The photo in question /was/ likely of unaccompanied
minors apprehended at the border who would later be released to
relatives. But as the/Arizona Republic/ noted
“they are still children in cages.”
Favreau’s biggest mistake, however, was obscuring the bigger picture of
what Obama was doing at the time: an influx of Central American
asylum-seekers fleeing brutal gang violence (which is itself rooted
in US government policy) sought asylum in the United States, so he put
these families into detention
en masse to send a tough message to would-be migrants down south /and/
anti-immigrant voters at home.
The Obama administration opened a facility to incarcerate asylum-seekers
fleeing for their lives in southeastern New Mexico, far from where most
lawyers who could represent them in asylum proceedings live, as Wil S.
Hylton described in a February 2015 /New York Times Magazine/
story. And so volunteer lawyers rushed to the small town of Artesia
What they found when they arrived were “young women and children huddled
together. Many were gaunt and malnourished, with dark circles under
their eyes.” “Kids vomiting all over the place.” “A big outbreak of
fevers.” “Pneumonia, scabies, lice.” A school that often did not seem to
Such detentions would serve, the Obama administration hoped, as a deterrent.
“It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back,”
Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson forebodingly
Johnson was “standing on a dirt road lined with cabins in a barren
compound enclosed by fencing,” celebrating the opening of a massive
detention facility for women and their children in Dilley, Texas. It was
run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. (The company
has since changed its name to the more antiseptic CoreCivic, which
pledges to “Better the Public Good.”)
Johnson didn’t call Mexicans “rapists” or suggest that what the United
States really needed was more Norwegians. But the message was clear:
regardless of your right to asylum under US and international law, the
US government will lock you up in degrading and harmful conditions and
then send you back home to your possible death if you dare request their
The same day Johnson visited the detention center in Artesia, according
to one of Hylton’s sources, ICE deported seventy-nine people back to the
US-tilled killing fields of El Salvador. Ten youth were later reported
to have been killed.
Today, it was reported that Trump would soon sign an executive order
ending family separation. His method? Resurrecting Obama’s policy of
detaining families together, which was ultimately blocked in federal court.
Journalists still have trouble making sense of Obama’s actions. On
Saturday, the /New York Times/ took pains
to explain that officials like Johnson and domestic policy advisor
Cecilia Muñoz had “struggles with illegal immigration,” which is what
led them to incarcerate asylum-seeking families. “The steps led to just
the kind of brutal images that Mr. Obama’s advisers feared: hundreds of
young children, many dirty and some in tears, who were being held with
their families in makeshift detention facilities.” The images were bad,
which made Obama look bad. But there was lots of heart-wrenching,
liberal soul-searching, and so Obama wasn’t so bad.
It’s a strong contrast to the palpable sense of liberal outrage at
Trump’s policies. But that outrage is a very good thing, even if it
muddies the historical record of Obama and others’ misdeeds. Trump has
hastened a welcome polarization over immigration that has been underway
the Bush administration: liberals who once shared conservatives’
antipathy toward undocumented immigrants have become increasingly
sympathetic and solidaristic as immigration becomes a partisan issue.
Polarization and partisanship around immigration is /good/ — the old
consensus was horrific.
But liberal rhetoric too often elides the uncomfortably mainstream roots
of Trump’s crackdowns and thus obscures the concrete solutions that we
Many liberals appear to think that we had a relatively humane
immigration enforcement system before Trump took office. In fact,
Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama thoroughly militarized the border
(including constructing hundreds of miles of a wall), nearly quintupled
the size of the Border Patrol, and constructed a mercilessly smooth
system linking the mass incarceration to a terrifyingly gargantuan
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the debate over Trump’s immigration
policies, which has centered on the Dreamers and the insistence on
funding for his “big, fat, beautiful wall,” is how it has recapitulated
the basic immigration policy framework under his two most recent
predecessors. Trump’s demand
has been this: legal status for DREAMers must be accompanied by the
elimination of the diversity visa lottery, sharp limitations on the
priority given to reunifying families in awarding visas for legal
immigration, and, of course, $25 billion for his wall, since Mexico
apparently doesn’t want to pay for it.
Many Democrats have rejected this, which is good. But it all obscures an
important historical irony: combining legalization measures with
deportation and border enforcement crackdowns (along with a larger
supply of second-class guest workers for profiteering businesses) is
/precisely/ the mainstream, bipartisan establishment framework for
immigration “reform” that guided a) repeated and failed legislation
under Bush and Obama and b) executive enforcement actions under Bush and
After Trump took office, apprehensions of unauthorized border crossers
sharply declined, leading the president to eagerly take credit
his tough talk had accomplished what his soft-spoken predecessors could
or would not. But the celebration was premature. The number of
crossings, as measured by apprehensions, soon began to rise again,
despite Trump’s best efforts. It’s part of a longstanding pattern:
immigration crackdowns mollify nativists in the short term but
ultimately fail to accomplish their stated objective, leading to further
calls for even harsher crackdowns.
And so Trump was confronted with the same reality that met prior
presidents since before President Clinton asserted
in 1995, “We won’t tolerate immigration by people whose first act is to
break the law as they enter our country.”
Border militarization and deportation crackdowns are a performance aimed
at satisfying anti-immigrant voters and can have only a limited impact
on changing migration patterns on the ground. Many politicians assume
that tougher policies along the border deter immigration, but they
mostly don’t. And so new, tougher scripts are written up and acted out,
to the same effect, again and again. This is what led Trump to the
family separation campaign.
Immigration continues, immigrants continue to suffer expulsion and death
in the Sonoran Desert, and a hardcore nativist voting bloc is
conditioned to expect and demand even more draconian policies. One
shudders to think what kind of savagery Trump’s administration will come
up with next.
But this historical dynamic eludes most journalists, and so much
reporting on the family separation policy has been confused.
In reality, what Trump is doing is directing federal prosecutors to
charge every possible migrant who crosses between official ports of
entry with illegally entering the country. And people charged with
illegal entry or reentry would have always been separated from their
children, because they are transferred to federal criminal custody.
The plan was family separation
by way of maximally applying existing tools
immigrants caught crossing without authorization between ports of entry
— and not just some or many, as under past administrations — would be
prosecuted for the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry.
In federal courts, prosecutions of immigrants charged with illegally
reentering the country rose steadily under Presidents Clinton and Bush,
then skyrocketed <http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/430/> under
Obama. Prosecutions for illegally entering the country rose as well. By
2016, people convicted of immigration-related offenses made up
9 percent of the federal prison population, or 15,702 inmates.**
Trump’s, then, is not the first crackdown. In 2005, the Bush
administration launched Operation Streamline as part of its “enforcement
with consequences” approach to target a much broader swath of migrants.
Since then, federal law enforcement have used magistrate judges to
oversee “cattle calls”
mass guilty pleas from groups as large as dozens of defendants at once,
at times prosecuted not by assistant US attorneys but by immigration
officials who may not
<https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1884354> even be
licensed to practice law.
Just as immigration law became increasingly indistinguishable from
criminal law, the former has suffered from similarly weak due-process
protections as the latter, as harsh potential sentences were used to
coerce defendants into guilty pleas. The court system was converted into
a massive, prosecutor-directed assembly line to prison and deportation.
As of 2016, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
<http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/crim/446/>, more than half of all
federal prosecutions were for these two migration crimes of entry and
It’s still too early to measure the full scope of Trump’s policies,
because data for illegal entry and reentry charges is not yet available
for May or June. But prosecutions have been on the rise over Trump’s
time in office, according to data from the Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse. In April, the number of prosecutions for illegal entry
stood at 4,521, up from 2,080 in January 2017.
Yet in December 2012, under Obama, the number prosecuted reached a high
of 6,701. Under Bush, they reached an even higher point, of 7,137, in
September 2008. The number of prosecutions frequently topped 5,000
during Bush’s final year of office, and vacillated throughout Obama’s
Prosecutions for illegal reentry have been relatively stable under
Trump, reaching 2,916 in April of this year, just somewhat higher than
the 2,198 in January 2017. Those numbers were considerably below the
highpoint of 3,671 reached under Obama in April 2013, and somewhat above
the highpoint of 2,206 reached in October 2008 during Bush’s final
months in office.
How many children are being separated? 2,342 children were separated
from 2,206 parents or guardians at the Mexican border between May 5 and
June 9 — but CBP claims that they could not provide me with data going
back to prior months and years. For now, precisely how Trump’s cruel
policy compares to his predecessors’ is difficult to determine, though
people working on the ground report
a major increase in separations.
At least on a policy level, family separation is incidental to the
policy of prosecuting every unauthorized crosser for committing a
federal crime: if you’re charged with a federal crime, you’re remanded
from the immigration officials to a federal lockup. In part, as Roque
at /HuffPost/, that’s because a strategy that was explicitly aimed at
using detention as a means to deter migration might not pass legal
muster. This is partly why Obama’s detention program was ultimately shut
down by federal judges
Trump’s solution is to launder their deterrence policy through a
criminal justice system that can normalize most any horror.
Indeed, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions defends family separation by
“every time somebody…gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American
citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children,”
he’s not wrong. Though he’s right, of course, for the wrong reasons:
Sessions believes that the system of mass incarceration is good.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimated
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf> that in 2004, 1,596,100
minor children had a parent incarcerated in state prison at the time
that parent was admitted; 282,600 children had parents locked up in
federal prisons. Family separation, including the widespread separation
of poor mothers (particularly poor mothers of color) by child protection
services, is a core feature of what the American carceral system does.
Indeed, incarcerated women are often shackled while giving birth
and then have their babies taken from
them by child protective services twenty-four hours later.
The systems of mass incarceration and mass immigrant enforcement have
for decades become increasingly intertwined and normalized — including,
critically, through Obama’s rollout of the Secure Communities program,
which made local police the front door to the federal deportation
pipeline. With Trump’s latest policies, many are discovering that our
norms are reprehensible.
So what precisely has changed at the border? According to Dara Lind,
/Vox/‘s immigration reporter, the most consequential change is the
widespread prosecution of asylum-seekers crossing between ports of entry
for illegal entry. That is notably and newly cruel. Meanwhile,
asylum-seekers who present themselves at ports of entry are sometimes
being stopped from setting foot on US soil, and even, in some cases,
being separated from their children.
These are inhumane policies. But they are being carried out by way of
longstanding political and legal norms of anti-immigrant cruelty.
The point here is not to wag a finger at liberal hypocrisy or ignorance.
Rather, we need to understand this history to make concrete proposals
that can help solve the problem. We should repeal laws criminalizing
illegal entry and reentry. Short of that, we should insist that Congress
pass a law that bars the prosecution of asylum-seekers for illegal
entry. And we can and should demand that the law recognize, contrary to
Attorney General Sessions’s recent decision, that people can claim
asylum when they are running from violence perpetrated by non-state
actors like gangs or domestic partners.
Correctly analyzing Trump’s child separation campaign is emblematic of a
larger analytical and rhetorical needle that the Left struggles to
thread: emphasizing that Trump’s awful policies are often /far too
normal/ and rooted in longstanding bipartisan establishment norms, while
also recognizing and condemning the fact that he is taking those norms
to dangerous, new extremes. Normal policies look worse when a brazenly
racist monster like Trump does them.
But Trump is also blazing new trails in cruelty, and the spotlight on
that cruelty offers a unique chance to stop it. The Left and immigrant
rights movement should welcome the fact that border walls, deportation
raids, and jailed children that might have been ignored or welcomed if
put in place under Clinton, Bush, or Obama are finally being exposed for
the monstrosities that they are. But we can’t let establishment
Democrats pretend like they’re leading the resistance. They helped
create the problem.
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