The real animals are in the White House
Revulsion at Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade is widespread, but those seeking justice need to understand how the atrocities are products of a system with bipartisan support.
DONALD TRUMP started spewing hate toward immigrants on the very first day of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, with his vile “Mexican rapists” speech. Yet somehow, he’s managed this spring to make a sharp turn toward even more disgusting anti-immigrant cruelty and racism.
It was just last September when Trump was hypocritically professing his love for the young immigrants known as DREAMers, even as he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gave many of them temporary legal status.
But starting with his Easter Sunday tweets declaring “NO MORE DACA DEAL!” and denouncing the caravan of Central American refugees trying to reach the U.S. to apply for asylum, Trump has embraced a hard-right politics for this midterm election year.
It’s hard to think of anything similar at this level of national politics since the Second World War against Nazi Germany made fascist flirtations unacceptable for U.S. politicians.
Last week, Trump announced his nominee for the State Department’s office of refugees: Ronald Mortensen, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-immigrant hate group. Mortensen has called for DACA recipients to pay “restitution” for “unlawfully obtained Social Security numbers.”
Then there’s the bloodthirsty screed against the Salvadoran-American gang MS-13, titled “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13,” which appeared on the official White House website. “In less than 500 words, the...statement managed to use the word ‘animals’ a total of 10 times,” wrote Juan Miranda and Valeria Sosa Garnica in Socialist Worker.
The White House statement reads like a call to a lynch mob — similar to the full-page ads bought by Trump in 1989 to urge the death penalty for Black New York City teenagers convicted (falsely, it turned out) of a violent rape:
Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer, and when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes...How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!
Trump’s twisted fanaticism hasn’t faded a bit three decades later — only now, he speaks as the president of the United States.
OF COURSE, Trump’s hard right turn hasn’t just been rhetorical. Last month, the White House announced a slew of harsh new policies against migrants entering the country, many of them legally applying for asylum.
These policies include separating parents from their children — who may be housed on military bases — and declaring that children who enter the country alone to reunite with parents already in the U.S. will not receive the protections accorded to “unaccompanied minors.”
In just two weeks in early May, 658 children were ripped away from their parents or guardians by the Border Patrol.
“If you are smuggling a child,” declared Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, “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.”
Sessions honors his Confederate namesakes by displaying the same racist cowardice — first by dehumanizing Brown children as illicit contraband, and then by claiming to be bound by a nonexistent “law” that in reality is his own new policy.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose military background blinds many in the Pentagon-worshipping media to his blatant xenophobia, summed up the administration’s callousness perfectly: “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
AS HORRIFYING as the new rhetoric and policies have been, however, it’s notable how hard it is sometimes to distinguish Trump’s immigration atrocities from those of the Obama administration.
Jon Favreau, former Obama speechwriter and host of the “Pod Save America” podcast, tweeted horrifying pictures last week of detained immigrant children sleeping in cages — only to find out that the images actually dated from his days in the White House in 2014.
Last month, a shocking investigation by the ACLU revealed widespread abuse of child immigrants by Border Patrol agents — including sexual abuse and running over a teen with a patrol vehicle — between 2009 and 2014, while Obama was president.
Then there is the story told by the numbers of migrants facing criminal prosecution for crossing the border. As the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) explains, this policy was begun in 2005 under George W. Bush in order to funnel more migrants into prisons, as opposed to the “catch and release” practice so despised by conservatives.
The number of immigrant prosecutions under Trump is on pace to rise from 60,000 in 2017 to 72,000 this year. But that’s only a bit more than the 70,000 prosecuted in Obama’s final year in office, and far lower than the 97,000 in 2013.
This isn’t to say that things aren’t getting worse under Trump. As the headline of an article by the ACLU’s Mitra Ebadolahi puts it: “The Border Patrol Was Monstrous Under Obama. Imagine How Bad It Is Under Trump.”
But it’s beyond sobering that many of the Democrats’ actual immigration policies — shorn of the party’s “we love immigrants” rhetoric — are easily confused with those of a xenophobic demagogue.
The reasons for this are deeper than personal failings and betrayals by party leaders. They are rooted in Democrats’ “solution” to the immigration issue, known as comprehensive immigration reform.
OVERALL, THE numbers of people migrating to the U.S. have been declining for years — not just under Trump, but ever since the Great Recession of 2007. There were 304,000 apprehensions of immigrants in 2017, less than one-fifth of their peak of 1.6 million in 2000.
But the MPI reports an important fact to bear in mind:
The profile of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has gradually — yet dramatically — shifted. Starting around 2014, apprehensions of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (known as the Northern Triangle of Central America) began to rise, even as reports suggested more Mexican nationals were leaving the United States than arriving.
Today, Northern Triangle migrants make up the majority of Southwest border apprehensions, many turning themselves in to authorities to apply for asylum, rather than attempting to cross illegally.
The MPI report goes on to explain that many of those seeking asylum are women and children, who are “particularly vulnerable to emergent forms of violence and political instability in the Northern Triangle,” including “some of the highest femicide rates in the world.”
The terrible irony is that because many Central American migrants are trying to emigrate legally — by seeking asylum — their border crossings are public, and therefore more easily portrayed by the right wing as an “invasion.”
In the summer of 2014, at the beginning of this migration of women and unaccompanied children from Central America, Obama made a fateful decision to stop the longstanding practice of putting migrants fleeing violence and persecution under the category of refugees — and instead sought to expedite their prosecution and removal.
Obama’s motivation was less overtly racist than Trump’s — although keep in mind that John Kelly helped shape immigration policy under Obama.
But this was another repressive step by his administration — like deporting more immigrants than any other president in history — that was supposed to convince Republicans Obama was serious about “controlling the border,” in the hopes that they would finally agree to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Comprehensive immigration reform is a framework in which an eventual “path to citizenship” (which gets longer with each round of negotiations) is promised to a section of undocumented immigrants (which gets accordingly smaller), in return for increased repression against other immigrants and future ones trying to enter the country.
For over a decade, this framework shaped a downward spiral for the immigrant justice movement, which progressively lowered its demands, while justifying any and all crackdowns against those who fell outside its narrow terms, including the migrants who arrived at the border each summer.
Needless to say, comprehensive immigration reform didn’t happen. Instead, Obama built for Trump a large machinery of deportations and detentions, staffed by agents empowered to carry out a racist agenda with impunity.
BEFORE DISMISSING the fate of migrant children as “foster care or whatever,” John Kelly candidly spelled out the cold-blooded logic behind the policy of family separation:
The vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13...But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously that’s a big thing...They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills.
They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.
Kelly never mentioned that many of these “not bad people” have a “well-founded fear of persecution,” and therefore must be deemed refugees, under U.S. law, regardless of their income or education level.
But then again, Obama neglected to acknowledge the same thing when he declared, “Don’t send your children here. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.” Nor then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We have to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message contrary to our laws or encourage more to come.”
In a political environment where even supposedly liberal Democrats confidently declare their hostility to refugee children, it isn’t surprising that Border Patrol agents put that hostility into cruel action.
And while the most horrifying abuses documented by the ACLU are surely not agency policy, they certainly serve the function of deterrence that Kelly made clear is the name of the game.
FOR ALL of Trump’s demonizing of MS-13, his policy of deterring women and children from applying for asylum in practice means that his government, as Danny Katch once put it at Socialist Worker is “engaged in a twisted competition with criminal gangs that engage in widespread rape and murder over who can be more terrifying.”
This is a difficult moment in which fear rules the day, especially among those most oppressed by the Trump regime. There is widespread outrage against the new border policy of child-snatching, but active protests have been small.
Yet this is also an important moment for the movement for immigrant justice to reconstitute itself on a stronger political foundation, and in that regard, there are some hopeful signs.
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At some of the Families Belong Together protests organized around the country last Friday, demands were raised to defund ICE and the Border Patrol. Some Democrats running in congressional primaries have taken up the demand to abolish ICE.
The demands are vague, and the wider Democratic Party of Obama and Clinton has no interest in adopting them, but they are reflections of grassroots forces looking for a way out of the blind alley of comprehensive immigration reform.
They show the widespread desire to resist not only Trump, but also the empty liberalism that led to Trump. That’s a hopeful sign, even in this horrible moment, that seeds of resistance are being sewn.