Telling the Truth About Immigration

Donald Trump plans to make immigration and “border security” the dominant themes in the 2018 midterm election.  On June 24th, Trump tweeted: “We need strength and security at the Border!… We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, [send] them back.”  To respond effectively, Democrats need to tell the truth about immigration; they need to respond to 10 questions.

(1) Why do immigrants want to come to the United States?  Trump and his surrogates spin a consistent dark narrative: “Uncontrolled immigration… illegal immigrants being arrested for the most heinous crimes imaginable… Low-wage foreign workers being brought in to take your place at less pay.”

The reality is more complicated.  Most of the recent immigrants coming across the southern border are fleeing the “Northern Triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) because their lives are in danger; they’re seeking asylum in the United States.  There’s no compelling evidence that these immigrants are criminals (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/30/upshot/crime-immigration-myth.html).

(2) How many are crossing the southern border?  Trump routinely calls the influx of immigrants “a crisis” and implies it’s a deluge.

Actually, immigration has decreased since 2000.  (https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2018/06/chart-of-the-day-our-crisis-at-the-border/)  From a high of 1.64 million in 2000 to a low of 303,916 in 2017.  (By the way, a report in the San Diego Union (http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-refugee-decline-20180621-story.html) indicated that the diminishing immigrant numbers are causing labor shortages in border states.)

(3) Is this a crisis?  From the moment Trump announced his presidential candidacy, he has used inflammatory immigration language to describe a border “crisis.”  In June of 2015, Trump blamed Mexico: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems… When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”  Nonetheless, a recent Bloomberg article indicated that immigration from Mexico isn’t a problem (https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-06-26/what-immigration-crisis-the-u-s-isn-t-being-swamped) — there are more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than there are those coming in.

Early on, Trump also claimed that Islamic terrorists were pouring across the southern border; he’s since dropped this assertion.

On June 24th, the New York Times investigated whether there is an immigration “crisis” in the border town of Brownsville Texas (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/23/us/border-trump-immigration.html) and concluded there isn’t.

(4) Are undocumented immigrants a threat?  Trump suggests that only gang members are coming across the border: “Crippling loopholes in our laws have enabled MS-13 gang members and other criminals to infiltrate our communities.”  A recent San Francisco Chronicle article examined this contention (https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/MS-13-is-scary-but-Trump-may-be-exaggerating-the-13020572.php?) and concluded it’s false: “Although research on MS-13 varies, there is little evidence that young gang members are coming over the border in large numbers. [A government report] found that 0.02 percent of the 260,000 unaccompanied children who had crossed the southern border over the previous six years were suspected of being affiliated with MS-13.”

(5) Why are families in custody?  Each year, thousands of immigrants make the arduous journey to the southern border (in 2017, about 25,000 per month).  Once they cross into the United States and request asylum (http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-asylum-process-20180427-story.html), they are in protected status; that is, they get to stay in the country until their case is adjudicated.  (And their children, if any, get to stay with them.)

At the moment, the border is, in effect, closed to asylum seekers and so the vast majority of them have no legal way to enter the U.S.  In many cases, they cross the border anyway.  When they are apprehended they are taken into custody and charged with a misdemeanor and jailed.  (That’s the effect of the Trump Administration “zero tolerance” policy.)  They are then held indefinitely until they appear before an Immigration judge.

(6) Why are children separated from their parents? If an adult goes through the regular asylum process, they enter a civil proceeding and their children can stay with them. (An international treaty, which the U.S. signed, guarantees immigrants the right to seek asylum.)

If an adult is arrested, they enter a criminal proceeding and go to jail; in this case, their children cannot stay with them.  (The Trump Administration has recently reversed this decision.)

The Trump Administration routinely alleges that immigrant children are gang members or are being manipulated by gangs.  A recent New York Times article indicated there’s no credible evidence of this (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/us/immigration-minors-children.html).

(7) What rights do immigrants have?  The Constitution guarantees basic rights to anyone who is in the United States — whether or not they are citizens.  Immigrants are guaranteed the right of due process (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/what-constitutional-rights-do-undocumented-immigrants-have); that is, they can have their day in court.

(8) Do immigrants have the right to legal representation?  Yes, but it’s not free.  There was a pro bono legal service but, on April 10th, it was suspended by the Trump Administraion (https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/11/politics/immigrant-legal-aid/index.html )

(9) Do immigrants have the right to post bond?  Yes, but most of them don’t have the wherewithal to do this.  A June 24th New York Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/23/us/family-reunited-border-immigration.html ) described the case of a Guatemalan woman who was separated from her son but who was aided by the organization Libre by Nexus; they gave her legal advice, put up her bond, and instituted a lawsuit that resulted in reconciliation.

(10) Can their children be held indefinitely?  No.  There’s a 1997 court decision (Flores v. Reno) that requires the federal government to to place children with a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” rather than keeping them in custody.  (In practice, it limits the custody to 20 days.)

On June 23rd, the Trump Administration announced a process to reunite the 2053 “separated minors,” it has in custody, with their parents.  As part of this process, the Department of Justice will seek to revoke the Flores decision so that it can hold minors, and their parents, indefinitely.

Summary:  Not surprisingly, Trump has exaggerated and lied about the immigration situation.  It’s not a crisis.  The vast majority of the immigrants are not criminals, they are unfortunates legitimately seeking asylum.  The solution to the situation is to grant immigrants due process and, for legitimate asylum seekers, releasing families from custody until they can have their day in court.