Assuming that you have any human decency, you’ve probably been moved by tales of the borderlands in America. Children are being separated from their parents with a callous disregard for their fate, some of which later ended up in the hands of human traffickers thanks to a zero-tolerance policy. Then there’s the recent story of mass immigration trials in Pecos, Texas, where some 70 people were photographed being sentenced in court at once in a parody of due process. It’s heartbreaking and cruel — largely without measurable benefit to the United States — and of course, a perfect example of the evils of Donald J. Trump as president.
Yeah, about that last point —we need to talk a bit about exactly how messed up this country is regarding immigration, and trying to blame Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the whole shebang is denying how culpable we all are in this sphere.
Trump is a rampaging bigot and petty tyrant when it comes to illegal immigration and border crossing by brown people. There’s no reasonable argument against that. From his stupid wall to his pronouncement of Mexicans as everything from animals to rapists he has single-handedly killed Godwin’s Law to go proto-Hitler in a way that is terrifying. I have a more humane policy about spiders in my house than Trump does about brown people in our country, and Sessions is his happy little Igor in the work. We clear? Good.
Trump and Sessions are just the drunken children picking up the gun we left lying on the table, though. The mass immigration trial photo that has been making the rounds in the media lately is disturbing, but it is not new.
The program that we’re addressing is called Operation Streamline, and it dates back to the second term of George W. Bush’s administration. What basically happened is that civil detention facilities for apprehended border crossers were at capacity, and an increasing number of non-Mexicans were among the detainees. In the Del Rio area, 15,000 non-Mexicans were caught in 2005, and obviously Mexico had no interest in taking them from us. So the decision was made to prosecute border crossers through the criminal justice system instead of the civil immigration system. To avoid violating the equal protection clause of the constitution, that meant that ultimately ALL illegal immigrants would have to be prosecuted, even Mexicans who would normally be sent back across the border. This, naturally, had the side effect of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to the private prison industry who were more than happy to take these “criminals” off the federal government’s hands.
That was a vast oversimplification of the affair, but it’s a workable summation. We had a lot more people coming to this country through undocumented channels back when America was still living large before the Great Recession, and instead of revamping our civil immigration system we just made everyone a criminal and trusted to a parasitic private industry to handle it. And because this was not long after 9/11, a lot of Americans were fine with a few less rights for foreigners in the name of a feeling of safety.
Operation Streamline stayed in power through the rest of the Bush era and throughout the administration of Barack Obama. That is very important to remember, because a great deal of what Trump is doing now is based on both reality and utter fantasy at the same time.
The rhetoric throughout Trump’s time has been that Obama did away with the concept of American borders, leading to a flood of job-stealing, welfare-taking, crime-breeding “Others” invading America. That’s just nonsense. Contrary to popular belief, the illegal immigration population under Barack Obama hit an all-time low, while the number of deportations went through the roof. Though Obama made looking for those with criminal backgrounds a priority, he was nonetheless a highly-prolific Deporter-in-Chief. The talk of DREAMers and families was welcome news to many Americans sick of the heavy hand of the government regarding people who entered or remained in the country illegally, but it could not erase the fact that Obama was as similarly draconian with Operation Streamline as his predecessor.
We didn’t do well will refugees from down south either. One of the primary complaints I consistently heard from liberals regarding Hillary Clinton in 2016 was her state department recognizing the new government in Honduras after a military coup. That coup resulted in families desperately sending children to America as refugees through channels that were both illegal and dangerous, and Clinton’s response was to send them back to discourage the practice as it often resulted in thievery, human trafficking and worse. That is another huge oversimplification of a terrible and complicated situation, but the justification that Clinton gave is essentially the same one that Sessions has since used: discouragement.
I don’t know the full intentions of Bush, Obama and Clinton when overseeing these policies, but I do know Trump’s. He has made his rampant racism a central tenet of his governing style, what Ian Danskin calls the death of a euphemism. These American policies regarding people coming to our country outside the channels of formal immigration are now a cudgel in a despot’s hands, and he is wielding it willy-nilly without care of who it hurts. He is most definitely to blame for the blows that he lands, but we left the weapon out and unattended. Our policy regarding our borders has been lazy, unethical, driven by private greed, unkind in the name of politics and allowed to serve as a growth medium for hate.
Stopping Trump with democratic mid-term sweep this November or with a new president in 2020 or even with a removal from office will not change any of that. Until we sit down and look at immigration policies the way we did with health care, it will remain a defective tool capable only of harm. We are the problem; Trump is just the worst of us.