We march because all immigrants must be free

June 29, 2018

With a nationwide day of action coming on June 30, Christopher Baum explains how Trump’s cruel policies are an intensification of those initiated by his predecessors.

MASSES OF people across the country will mobilize in a cry of protest on Saturday, June 30, as the border nightmare orchestrated by Donald Trump and his administration continues with no end in sight.

More than a week after Trump made an usual concession to widespread outrage and signed an executive order that appeared to suspend the practice of family separation, it’s clear that the humanitarian disaster isn’t even beginning to be addressed.

Earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress that his department still had 2,047 children separated from their families in its custody — only six fewer than the number in custody a week before when Trump signed his order.

The human suffering this represents was captured in a long Facebook post by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren after she toured detention facilities and processing centers along the border in Texas.

A Families Belong Together march in San Diego
A Families Belong Together march in San Diego

Warren describes a processing center in McAllen in an enormous non-descript warehouse:

with a solid concrete floor and a high roof. It is filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.

The stench — body odor and fear — hits the second the door is opened. The first cages are full of men. The chain link is about 12-15 feet high, and the men are tightly packed. I don’t think they could all lie down at the same time. There’s a toilet at the back of the cage behind a half-wall, but no place to shower or wash up. One man kept shouting, “A shower, please. Just a shower.”

Warren’s comment goes on to describe the other holding areas in the center — and then another facility, further east from McAllen in Port Isabel, that the government bills as a “family reunification” center. “Let’s be clear,” Warren wrote. “Port Isabel isn’t a reunification center. It’s a detention center. A prison.”

Warren ends with this comment: “The fight for these children and families isn’t over — not by a long shot.”

Fortunately, people across the country have reached the same conclusion — the protests that pressured the Trump administration to finally respond didn’t relent, even for a day. This weekend offers an opportunity for a show of force against Trump and the agencies terrorizing and repressing immigrants with a day of mobilizations, called by a wide coalition of liberal groups, anchored by a national protest in Washington, D.C.

TRUMP’S EXECUTIVE order on June 20 did represent an extraordinary reversal.

Just days earlier, Trump was still insisting that “only Congress can fix” this crisis — which, of course, he and his administration created.

This most blustering, arrogant and seemingly unreachable of politicians was forced to back down in the face of public pressure — a remarkable indication of the power of mass outrage and protest.

In the days since the order was issued, reports emerged suggesting tensions within the administration.

According to Politico, Trump issued the order over the objections of key advisers, including Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn. Senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller, the chief architect of the administration’s immigration policies, was cut out of the decision entirely.

There are also indications that federal officials are having to ignore Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. According to CNN, “Customs and Border Protection has told its field offices to suspend referring any parents who cross the border illegally with their children for prosecution for misdemeanor illegal-entry charges.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s own behavior since signing the order has been even more erratic than usual. In a tweet on June 24 that was remarkable even for him, he ranted: “We cannot allow all these people to invade our country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”

TRUMP’S ORDER is no “solution” at all.

It ends future family separation with an instruction to place parents and children together in federal detention centers, where they are to remain throughout the parents’ legal proceedings — which could drag on for months or even years.

In other words, Trump’s plan is to hold immigrant families in internment camps — indefinitely.

To achieve this, he needs to be rid of certain constraints imposed by the so-called Flores settlement, a consent decree with the courts signed by the Clinton administration in 1997.

The Flores settlement mandates, among other things, that children be detained for no longer than 20 days, and that they be kept in a state-licensed child care facility under the “least restrictive” conditions appropriate for their age and special needs.

Trump has claimed that these requirements justify his family separation policy. Zero-tolerance inevitably means that parents will be detained under conditions that are impermissible for their children — therefore, he has no choice but to separate the children.

Of course, he does have a choice — end zero tolerance.

But the Trump administration’s claim now is that family separation can’t be ended entirely unless authorities are freed from the restrictions of the Flores settlement.

If an emergency motion filed with a federal judge fails, as expected, the Trump administration will have three basic options: defy the court and continue detaining children under conditions that violate the settlement; reinstate some form of family separation; or abandon zero tolerance and resurrect the “catch and release“ practice of previous administrations, whereby immigrants were released from detention until they had to appear in court.

The protests this weekend and beyond are enormously important in keeping the pressure on all political leaders. Relief from the nightmarish conditions that the Trump administration has created at the border is desperately needed now. But these protests can be a step forward in a longer battle — to confront and dismantle the massive criminalization and deportation machine that Trump inherited from his predecessors.

THE PREVAILING theme of immigration enforcement over the past two decades, endorsed by Republicans and Democrats alike, has been that people who attempt to the enter the U.S. without the permission of the government must not only be deported, but must face sufficiently grave “consequences” to ensure they won’t try to come back.

Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is merely the latest and most extreme stage.

The Clinton administration got the ball rolling in 1996 with the passage of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

These laws significantly increased enforcement agency budgets and staffing, placed great power in the hands of these agencies by limiting judicial review of their decisions and actions, and expanded the scope of existing laws in a variety of ways — nearly always to the disadvantage, if not the outright criminalization, of non-citizens.

Along with these new laws came an increase in criminal prosecutions of the undocumented.

Deportation itself is a civil proceeding, not a criminal one. However, since 1929, the act of entering the country without permission has also been a criminal offense, subject to fines and imprisonment.

Thus, an undocumented immigrant who is apprehended by authorities may face criminal prosecution in a federal court, end up paying a fine and/or serving time in federal prison, and then be thrown into deportation proceedings once their criminal case has ended.

In the past, however, doubling up civil and criminal penalties in this way was fairly uncommon. Authorities were generally content to remove the undocumented from the country without going to the extra time, trouble and expense of piling on a criminal trial.

But as data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) shows, the number of criminal prosecutions for so-called entry-related offenses (illegal entry or re-entry) began to rise steadily in the late 1990s, more than doubling between 1996 (fewer than 10,000 prosecutions) and 2003 (over 20,000).

This number nearly doubled in 2004 and again in 2008. Figures have remained very high ever since: generally between 80,000 and 90,000 prosecutions per year, always at least 70,000, and in one year (2013), nearly 100,000.

By 2016, according to TRAC, more than half of all federal prosecutions in the U.S. were for entry-related offenses.

ONE IMPORTANT factor behind this massive increase was the intensity of anti-immigrant, pro-”border security” sentiment that flared up following the September 11, 2001, attacks. This mood found legislative expression in the USA PATRIOT Act, passed later in 2001, and in the marching orders of the newly constituted Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the following year.

But the sustained increase in criminal prosecutions is probably tied most directly to Operation Streamline, George W. Bush’s own attempt at a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Under Operation Streamline, the DHS was directed to criminally prosecute 100 percent of illegal entries in designated zones along the Southwest border. This differed from Trump and Session’s zero-tolerance policy only in being limited to certain sections of the border.

Operation Streamline also set up group prosecutions, in which dozens of defendants might be charged and sentenced in a single rapid-fire hearing. As The Intercept reported earlier this year, this practice is still very much alive.

Barack Obama, in turn, embraced Operation Streamline and even expanded its scope, so that by 2010, only the California portion of the Southwest border wasn’t covered.

In 2011, the Obama administration introduced the Consequence Delivery System, which was designed, among other things, to help enforcement officers identify individuals who would be most likely, after being deported, to try to enter the country again — and to prioritize them for processing through Operation Streamline’s pipeline into federal prison.

This meant, of course, coming down hardest on the people who are most desperate to come to the U.S. — whether because they have family and friends here, or because they already view this country as their home, or because the consequences of possibly being apprehended multiple times at the border seem preferable to the violence, oppression and poverty they are fleeing from.

As criminal prosecutions skyrocketed, they added to an already massive and ever-expanding backlog of court cases. This caused major practical and logistical problems for the authorities, as they often had neither the room nor the resources to keep all these defendants in custody while they awaited their day in court.

One obvious solution, from a practical perspective, was “catch and release” — the practice of releasing detainees until their court date arrived, rather then be incarcerated until then. Naturally, this didn’t satisfy the hardliners.

In 2009, a measure more to their liking was introduced: the infamous detention bed quota, which required, and provided funding for, ICE to fill 34,000 detention center beds every night.

This brought annual expenditures on immigration detention to a staggering $2 billion overall — a price that Democrats and Republicans alike seem more than willing to pay.

Through such measures, Trump’s predecessors have up a criminalization and deportation machine of unprecedented power and scope. In a way, all Trump has really done is turn the knobs up to 11.

CLEARLY TRUMP must be stopped — but then we must destroy the machine.

Trump’s concession in ending family separation, and the tensions and rifts that came before the executive order, show how even a regime as autocratic as Trump’s can still be put on the defensive.

But this struggle is just beginning. We need to continue organizing and expressing outrage in pursuit of anything that can reducing suffering in the here and now, including reuniting children with their families and stopping Trump’s indefinite family detention scheme.

At the same time, our ultimate aims are the abolition of ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies and recognition of full freedom and equal rights for all people, regardless of where they happen to have been born or what paperwork they are able to produce.

The surge of protests under the slogan of abolishing ICE is a very positive development. As Danny Katch wrote at SocialistWorker.org, the slogan:

is an assertion of the principle that no human being is illegal, and that our side won’t ratify the criminalization of immigrants in exchange for some of them gaining a chance at a reprieve.

It’s also a framework for any number of stand-alone demands — no longer shackled to the rotten compromise of “comprehensive reform” — that include cutting funding for ICE and CBP, ending the notorious “bed quota” that fills privately run detention centers, a moratorium on deportations, and recognizing the right of all refugees to apply for asylum without facing imprisonment.

The Trump nightmare is far from over, but there are millions of people who are horrified by what is taking place — and they want to raise their voices in resistance.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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