[News] The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity

Anti-Imperialist News 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

The photos 
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 
country…Bipartisan Bill!”

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 
sanctuary measures.

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 
be open.

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 
should demand.

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 
deportation pipeline.

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 
<https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1049751/download>: /all/ 
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 
<https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp> roughly 
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 
two terms.

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 
Planas writes 
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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