I’ll be honest: I struggle to comprehend what it is like to be an immigrant. I have lived in the United States my whole life as a citizen. My primary language is English and I have rarely been put in a situation where nobody could understand me. I don’t wake up every day wondering if I will be persecuted based on my nationality or worrying that I will be deported. So, to talk about the issue of immigration, I draw from my education, my experiences, and my interactions with others, recognizing that I myself am not an immigrant.
My interest in the topic of immigration started when I took a class on Anthropology and Immigration at University of Maryland in my second year of college. I took it as an elective, but I found myself enjoying the subject material a lot. It just so happened that between when I signed up for the class and when the class started, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination decided to run for President by putting the following statement in his opening speech: “[Mexico’s] bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”. So, along with the normal curriculum, that entire semester was filled with talking about his opinion on immigration. In hindsight, it was probably pretty important. At the beginning of the class I was skeptical about the inherent ideological tilt to the structure and material of the class, but I kept an open mind and found myself approaching immigration from a more nuanced perspective by the end of the semester.
This new found interest in immigration combined with my continuing education in the Spanish language led me to an internship with a non-profit that specializes in immigration law the next semester. There, I learned a lot about how the immigration system has a lot of complicated mechanisms to it and that it is very difficult to navigate. However, I also heard some heartbreaking stories about corruption, abuse, and violence that was occurring in some of these Central American countries. To make sure I’m not violating anybody’s privacy, I won’t give the specific stories about the cases I worked on, but here’s a link to some typical stories of people coming from Central America. https://supportkind.org/stories/category/children/
The next spring I worked at another non-profit that gave legal aid to low income people and immigrants. Starting in January 2017, I got to feel the full force of the new administration almost immediately. When the first travel ban was put into place, the phone number for the office got mistakenly published across social media as THE place to get help for ANY immigration problem you were having related to the travel ban. I spent my nearly every minute of my first few weeks answering phone calls from people across the country looking for help while seeing news about the chaos at Dulles Airport, only miles away from our office. These calls were often focused on people trying to make sure that their family members would be safe and be able to get into the country. The mental exhaustion of fielding all of these calls helped me to realize that this isn’t a small problem. Immigration is a big issue that requires a mix of micro-level and macro-level approaches.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at our current situation:
First, immigrants coming to the United States are not more criminal than US citizens. See Rob Sampson’s “Rethinking Crime and Immigration” for a nice chart to show that crime went down as immigration went up. https://contexts.org/articles/sampson/ This isn’t based on a narrative, this is based on data, statistics, and facts. Conservative media likes to blow up individual cases of illegal immigrants committing heinous acts of violence and use that to generalize and stereotype. This is based on a narrative, not statistics. To justify this point of view, you would be inferring that crimes committed by illegal immigrants are less tolerable than the same crimes, qualitatively and quantitatively, committed by citizens. Though this argument could be considered valid, you won’t find Conservative media using it much because it fractures the narrative by admitting that immigrants are committing less crime.
Additionally, using Latino gangs like MS-13 as props for the violent-immigrant narrative is problematic if you spend a couple of minutes looking up their history. MS-13 started in Los Angeles, CA as a way to protect from the other established gangs in the area. By deporting these gang members instead of locking them up, MS-13 and other violent gangs grew from those deported people to becoming influential players in Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Many of the immigrants whose cases came across my desk were escaping the threats and violence that these gangs were inflicting on their neighborhoods, their families, and them individually. Of course we don’t want that gang violence here, but failing to recognize the role of the United States in this situation is deceptive.
Second, the idea that immigrants are pouring across our border is misleading. As of 2014, more Mexicans were leaving the United States than entering it. There are a variety of factors to this phenomenon, but here is a Pew Research article about the statistics. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-u-s/
You can debate about what should be done with the number of people who are already here, but putting an investment in a large physical structure on the Southern border could likely keep people in instead of keeping people out. You can listen to Revisionist History Season 3, Episode 5 to hear how this phenomena has played out over the years. http://revisionisthistory.com/seasons?selected=season-3.
Third, the policies and conditions that many are complaining about now have been around since before the Trump administration. The reason that undocumented children are being separated from their undocumented parents is because there are different rules for detaining them. There is a 1997 agreement (note Clinton Administration) that says that a child cannot be detained for more than 20 days. This rule has led to children being separated from their parents if their parents are still in detention after this time period. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/us/politics/trump-immigration-children-executive-order.html
Also, even though some people hold President Obama as an admirer of illegal immigrants because of the way he spoke about them, the reality is much different. Part of the reason that more Mexicans were flowing out of the country than into it was because President Obama deported more people than any other US President. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/obamas-deportation-policy-numbers/story?id=41715661 Many of these facilities that you see in pictures today were being used during the Obama Administration. I heard people refer to these facilities as “hieleras” which loosely translates to ice boxes because they were kept cold to make the detainees uncomfortable. That was during the Obama Administration. Nice words are one thing, but I find that it is the actions that are more indicative of behavior. If we are outraged about these things now, then we should recognize that past Administrations were doing these things, including the Obama Administration, call them out on their wrongdoing, and then work to fix the situation.
I would like to say that there are easy solutions to immigration policies, but it’s difficult. Countries fluctuate in their need for immigrant labor, but that does not mean that we should cave in to Nativist sentiments and turn it into Gangs of New York style brawls when somebody says their job is being taken. We could always use more immigration judges, but a more efficient legal system is something that is a problem nationwide if not internationally as well. Completely open borders would not be viable because the United States is a better place to live than any other country and everyone would want to come here, but there are a lot of valuable things, tangible and intangible, that can be brought by introducing new people and new cultures to the country. The fact that the immigration laws are so manipulable that one President can choose to enforce them more than another and have dramatic differences is strange and Congress should act to reform it to take it out of the hands of the President, no matter who it is.
As for the controversial separation policies, I don’t have a good solution and would be open to ideas. Keeping children detained for too long is inhumane, but so is keeping anyone detained for too long, especially pre-trial. However, we must also weigh whether these people will show up to court if they are even semi-likely to get deported. See http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2018/jun/26/wolf-blitzer/majority-undocumented-immigrants-show-court-data-s/ There don’t seem to be any scenarios in which everyone can be a little bit satisfied, so it seems like we just need to start brainstorming new ideas.
When considering immigration and all of the concepts that roll into that, let’s not forget about the individuals involved. Sometimes we need larger policies to alleviate problems that affect large groups of people and sometimes we need to address the needs of the individuals around us. Figuring out the balance between those things is what becomes difficult. Buena Suerte.
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