In November 2017, a 39-year-old woman arrived in the United States after fleeing with her daughter from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Ms. L.” (as she would later become known in court documents) made it all the way to the US-Mexico border and there, as is her lawful right, pleaded for asylum. She cleared a so-called “credible fear” interview establishing that she was legitimately afraid of persecution if returned to her home country. But her troubles were far from over.
A few days after their arrival in the United States, Ms. L.’s then-6-year-old daughter was taken from her by immigration officials. Her daughter was soon transferred to a Chicago facility, while Ms. L. remained locked up in San Diego at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. The two have been separated for four months and have spoken only a handful of times by phone. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government over these practices in late February. “When the officers separated them, Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the ACLU complaint reads.
The government’s separation of parents from their children, the ACLU argued, violated asylum laws as well as the due-process rights of Ms. L. and her daughter. In early March, after a public outcry, Ms. L. was abruptly released, but her daughter remains in custody. It’s still unclear when or even if they’ll be reunited.
Ms. L.’s story is not unique. For more than a year, the Trump administration has discussed adopting, as official policy, the practice of separating parents from their children. “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico,” said John Kelly, then head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaking on CNN in March 2017.
There was perhaps even a hint of compassion in Kelly’s remarks. But snatching a child away from her mother’s arms in order to discourage others from attempting the same journey is undeniably cruel. And while this practice affects a small minority of the people subject to immigration enforcement—these are the freshest of newcomers and not yet among the estimated 11 million undocumented people already in the country—it is deeply representative of how the Trump administration treats immigrants and other marginalized populations.
Yes, there is Trump’s rhetoric: We all remember the “shithole countries” remark. He also recited a hateful anti-immigrant fable at the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference involving a menacing snake that kills a kindhearted woman. And he has repeatedly delivered speeches portraying immigrants as bloodthirsty gang members. Very often, when he does speak about immigrants, he speaks only about the MS-13 gang. “[Gang members] have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” Trump said last summer. “They’re animals.” His racist animus toward immigrants is one of the few subjects on which he can string together coherent sentences.
But his administration’s actions are even worse. Without needing to change any laws, the White House has used the threat of gang violence and the need to protect national security as pretexts for draconian immigration policies. Yet the real aim has always been something else: to inflict maximum suffering as a means of pushing out unwanted newcomers as well as those whose extended presence in the country may threaten white supremacy.
The administration has singled out California, home to the biggest immigrant population in the country, for daring to challenge this agenda. In early March, the Justice Department sued the state over three laws it passed last year. The first law limits the immigration-enforcement work that police departments and public agencies in the state can do for the federal government. The second bars employers from consenting to a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their businesses without a warrant and requires them to give employees a heads-up when the federal government performs an immigration audit on them. And the third gives the state attorney general the right to inspect any detention facility where immigrants are held while they await a court date or deportation. By passing these laws, the Justice Department argued, California had overstepped its bounds, since only the federal government has the right to regulate immigration enforcement. States that show compassion for immigrants will not be tolerated.
In addition to ICE agents staking out courthouses, school drop-off corners, and even hospitals—violating the agency’s own guidelines about not making arrests in “sensitive locations”—agents have also arrested or deported at least four outspoken immigrant-rights leaders in what activists call a calculated stroke of political retaliation. Recently, ICE arrested another, activist Alejandra Pablos, at a regular Tucson, Arizona, check-in on March 7.
Because of this fear of ICE, some immigrants have sought sanctuary in houses of worship. There are 36 people currently housed in sanctuary, according to a report released in January. But sanctuary is not a reprieve from the pressures of the Trump administration. Indeed, it’s a kind of imprisonment, a seclusion from the outside world in which one can lose contact with family and friends.
In June of last year, Trump proposed another rule change. “We also want to preserve our safety net for struggling Americans who truly need help,” he said in a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But others don’t treat us fairly. That’s why I believe the time has come for new immigration rules, which say that those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years.”
At the time, Trump’s statement was a head-scratcher. Undocumented immigrants are already barred from access to public assistance, food stamps, student loans, and Social Security. With some minor exceptions, even legal permanent residents must have their green cards for at least five years before they are eligible, and then only on a state-by-state basis for some public benefits. No matter: The trial balloon had been floated. By February of this year, Reuters reported on a rule being drafted that would allow immigration officials to consider whether a person had used public benefits—even if it was entirely legal, such as participating in Head Start for their US-born children—before deciding whether to grant a green card.
By March, The New York Times reported, immigrant families had already started to drop out of food stamps, food banks, and nutritional programs for pregnant women and their young children. “The rumor mill is rampant, and the fear is palpable,” said Lisa David, president and chief executive of Public Health Solutions, a food-stamp provider in New York City. “The stakes for what could happen in the future are incredibly high, and people just aren’t willing to take that risk.”
These programs are crucial lifelines, but this is how the Trump administration operates. The message is clear, and it’s being received: Immigrant families will have terrible choices imposed on them.
There’s a name for this approach: attrition through enforcement, or the enactment of policies that make life in the United States so difficult for immigrants that they choose to leave on their own. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called it “self-deportation,” which helped cost him the election. Trump said so himself. “He had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal,” Trump said in 2012. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote.” Today, as president, Trump has made this same “crazy policy” the cornerstone of his immigration agenda.
“People aren’t going to stop coming unless there are consequences to illegal entry,” a Homeland Security official told The Washington Post, explaining the department’s rationale for separating parents and children at the border. But eight human-rights advocates and legal-service providers, in a complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security in December, pointed out that such policies have no bearing on migration flows. They cited a study that examined the migration rates of children from Central America from 2011 to 2016. According to the complaint, the study found that “no U.S. policy—whether it be deterrence or not—has a statistical impact in the migration of a child. Instead, the study found that the single biggest indicator of a child’s migration was the number of homicides” in their home country: The more homicides that occurred, the more likely a child was to flee. (And bear in mind that homicides in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are a useful proxy for other kinds of violent crime that often go unrecorded, such as kidnappings and extortion.) The study could even quantify it: For every 10 homicides, six additional children would migrate.
Under Trump, the country has embarked on an enforcement policy that willfully causes suffering and that doesn’t even factor into the decisions of desperate people trying to escape dangerous situations. Moreover, its stated reasons—to protect national security and the rule of law—are a ruse. Like so much else with this administration, the US immigration agenda is now being driven by a disdain for the most vulnerable communities among us.