Even though many of us care, abstractly, about immigration, it can be very hard to tell what exactly is going on in the world of immigration enforcement. Reporting on immigration issues in the mainstream media tends to be quite bad. Additionally, our immigration system, in terms of law and policy, is truly one of the most complicated and bewildering systems in existence, so its workings are difficult for sane human beings to comprehend. In “This Week In Terrible Immigration News,” I try to explain recent developments in immigration that I think are important for leftists, and human beings generally, to know and care about, and seek to untangle areas of confusion in mainstream reporting on immigration issues. I encourage readers to write in if there are other issues I’m missing that need greater attention or explanation.
Hello everyone! The media has been in a veritable frenzy about the southern border during the nearly three weeks since I put out the inaugural edition of “This Week in Terrible Immigration News”! It also happens that during those three weeks, the government decided to schedule approximately 100 interviews a day at the immigration internment camp where I work, so my brain has been pretty much fried. (At Current Affairs, we are also working hard to finalize our upcoming May/June print edition—just in time for July, as usual. For immigration-related coverage, look out for Belén Fernandez’s upcoming piece on Honduras, and Erica X Eisen’s dissection of National Geographic’s “Border Wars,” both of which I had the privilege of editing. In short, I have been Busy!)
This week’s digest will focus on pieces of immigration news that have gotten lost in the static, and on contextualizing some of the higher-profile developments we’ve all heard about.
TLDR: What’s happening
- The plight of asylum-seekers trapped in dangerous Mexican border cities by new U.S. policies, which is perhaps the most significant issue on the border right now, continues to be wildly underreported, despite increased attention to border issues.
- More shenanigans are in the works to rapidly remove asylum-seekers from the U.S.
- The “humanitarian aid” bill pushed through Congress by our morally compromised Democratic leadership is nothing more than a blank check for DHS to ramp up border enforcement. These idiots are so feckless they’d’ve given the S.S. money for bigger cattle cars if the S.S. asked nicely enough.*
- There may only be one presidential candidate who is at all knowledgeable about immigration (spoiler alert: It’s not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren).
TLDR: What you can do about it
Call your currently-preferred presidential candidate and let them know that ending MPP/Remain in Mexico, ending immigration detention, and dismantling the police state for immigrants are issues that matter to you. Encourage them to attend one of the mass court proceedings in El Paso for asylum-seekers placed in MPP, for example, and bring more press to the issue. Encourage them to visit the Mexican side of the border across from San Diego, El Paso, Eagle Pass—or another place where asylum-seekers are being blocked from crossing or forced to return—to see the conditions there. For your reference, Bernie Sanders’ staff can be reached at 202-224-5141, 802-862-0697, or 800-339-9834, while Elizabeth Warren’s staff can be reached at 202-224-4543, 617-565-3170, or 413-788-2690. (If you like another candidate, google their number and send it to me and I will put it in the next digest! I am just trying to conserve my resources here, knowing my audience.)
- Protests are happening at many immigration jails and internment camps throughout the country this week. At least some of these protests can be found at this link. Bring as many friends as you can! There are detention centers in every part of the country, including in Democratic bastions, and it’s important to show, through all the numbers we can muster, that this is an issue that people are paying attention to and care about.
- Donate money to a bond fund for immigrants in detention, such as this one set up by Current Affairs contributor Caitlin Bellis.
- If you learned anything new from this digest, tell at least five people in your life that you think might not know either.
And now, onwards—
- Remember the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” a.k.a. the “Remain in Mexico” Program, a.k.a. the new legal procedure that allows the U.S. government to trap asylum-seekers in some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities? It’s being rolled out across more parts of the border.
During our last episode, I introduced everyone to a program the government has cynically dubbed the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), which is being used to forcibly return asylum-seekers to Mexico. Under this program, migrants are stripped of their identification documents and given court dates in the United States, but forced to stay in Mexico—where there is absolutely no infrastructure in place to physically support and protect them, much less to provide them with legal services—between those court dates. This means stranding resourceless, documentless asylum-seekers, including families with small children, in Mexican border towns with very high murder rates. Families have already been kidnapped and assaulted (and who knows what else? because remember, they don’t have any identification documents), to say nothing of being forced to sleep rough on city streets.
In theory, an individual who fears to return to Mexico can ask the U.S. government for a screening interview to determine if they would face persecution in Mexico, but these interviews are being inconsistently administered—and, when they are administered, are taking place in isolated border cells, with no right to counsel, using interview protocols that are totally secret and about which immigration advocates can obtain no official records. (To give you an idea of how truly fucked-up this secret interview process is, Local 1924—the Asylum Officers’ Union, representing the DHS employees who have been obligated to carry out these border interviews—just publicly condemned the MPP program and filed a brief in support of a lawsuit intended to halt the program, saying that it “violates our Nation’s longstanding tradition and international treaty and domestic obligation not to return those fleeing persecution to a territory where they will be persecuted.” This kind of internal mutiny is virtually unprecedented. When even DHS employees think that a line has been crossed, you know that things are very, very bad.)
MPP has already been implemented in San Diego, Calexico, and El Paso, and is soon slated to roll out in San Luis and Nuevo Laredo. It’s also worth remembering that MPP is occurring in conjunction with another obstructive policy known as “metering” (see item 1 in the last digest), in which the government blocks off border ports of entry where asylum-seekers would normally present themselves to ask for protection. I have heard anecdotally, for example, that about three people a day are being allowed through the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras crossing. Everyone else is forced to wait their turn to cross, sometimes for weeks or even months, in similarly dangerous conditions to those people who are returned to Mexico under MPP. (The real bitch of it all is that in places like San Diego and El Paso, some people wait for weeks on weeks to approach the port of entry, and then get immediately put into MPP and slapped right back to Mexico).
It’s not that there’s no reporting on MPP and metering in the media—I’ve seen stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and, less shockingly, the Intercept—but it’s not being highlighted as a major issue, and I don’t get the impression that it’s really penetrated the public consciousness, or that it’s inspiring much performative outrage from Democrats. I found it bizarre that everyone was suddenly mad about the border last week, but this anger didn’t seem to focus at all on any of the actually new developments, but rather on bad conditions in border holding cells that have been going on for almost a decade, if not longer (albeit on a slightly smaller scale**). It’s not that I don’t think what’s happening at the border cells and “temporary influx centers” is terrible—it clearly is—but some of the distress we’re directing towards the bad treatment of people who make it into the U.S. needs to be directed towards the even worse and less visible predicament of the people we are quietly preventing from getting here in the first place, and whom we are forcing to submit to truly farcical judicial proceedings (some of which will soon be taking place in secret tents rather than courthouses!)
For example, many people were devastated to see the photo of dad Oscar Martínez Ramírez, who drowned along with his little girl Valeria after Valeria panicked and jumped in the Rio Grande when Oscar tried to swim back to help his wife Tania cross. But I don’t think everybody fully put together that the reason this family tried to cross the river on their own, without even a coyote to guide them across, was because—according to Tania, who watched helplessly from the shore as her husband and daughter drowned—they had first tried to approach the port of entry at Eagle Pass, saw the massive, chaotic backlog there, and felt they had no choice but to attempt the river. This backlog is not a characteristic feature of our ports of entry: It is one deliberately and recently created by CBP’s metering policies, and the ensuing disorder at the border ports has in turn been used as a disingenuous justification for why we now “need” MPP across the whole border.
House Democrats also obviously don’t understand the clear danger of MPP becoming an entrenched feature of our asylum system. The House acted considerably butthurt over the fact that the Senate version of the emergency appropriations bill for the border (see item 3) was railroaded through, as opposed to their own version, which was allegedly filled with all kinds of important “safeguards” and “standards.” But the House version of the bill was also shockingly bad. In addition to earmarking funding for an exciting new “pilot program” for “family units” that sounds totally indistinguishable from the terrible family detention center I already work in, the bill also implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of MPP and earmarked funding for a cool call center in Mexico where stranded asylum-seekers can skype with nonexistent lawyers, plus additional funding to ensure that their cases move more efficiently through the court system (because speeding up court proceedings for huge numbers of unrepresented people is definitely a great way to safeguard due process, said no one ever). All but four Democrats voted for this piece of crap, providing further evidence that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib are the only Democratic representatives who are not completely lobotomized.
2. Other creative new procedures to screw over asylum seekers
I have to hand it to the Trump administration for their “fling shit at the walls until something sticks” approach to terrorizing immigrants. I am not 100 percent sure how much of this frenzy is a calculated strategy and how much of it is simply the spilling-over of an uncontainable enthusiasm for cruelty—sadism without borders, if you will—but either way: Nice work, boys. Among the other new policies DHS is toying with, which may or may not be coming down the pike soon:
- Making people ineligible for asylum who have passed through any other country on their way here.*** This is definitely illegal and will probably get enjoined by a judge in less than five seconds, but hey, you never know with judges.
- Allowing Border Patrol agents to conduct credible fear screenings at the border. Without getting too deep into the legal framework, which I’ve discussed a lot on previous occasions, these are highly legally complex screening procedures to determine whether an individual who has claimed they’re afraid to return to their country might eventually qualify for asylum. Asylum seekers who don’t pass this screening can be summarily deported.
There are already very few due process protections built into this credible fear process. Making CBP responsible for conducting the screenings (a.k.a. the guys who routinely slash water jugs in the desert) instead of the Asylum Office (who are not great, but, per item 1, have at least some minor interest in not murdering people) is inevitably going to result in much, much higher rates of rapid deportation. Conducting these screening interviews immediately at the border will also inevitably mean that nobody gets a lawyer.
More updates on these ones as they occur.
3. Congress has decided to give massive quantities of money to DHS to apprehend and lock up immigrants.
All right, now let’s talk in more detail about that appropriations bill that’s been in the news. I’ve gotten a few emails from people asking me what I think of it. What I think of it is not printable, and that’s saying a lot, because I have used a great deal of Intemperate Language in this magazine. Suffice to say that characterizing it as a “humanitarian aid” bill is laughable. Sure, there are a few million dollars allocated to provide resources to families recently released from ICE custody, or to more expeditiously place detained unaccompanied children with sponsors. I guess that’s okay, although WHY THEY NEEDED TO BE DETAINED IN THE FIRST PLACE REMAINS THE OPERATIVE QUESTION. The bill also allocates many more millions of dollars to:
- The Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and National Guard, for “necessary expenses to respond to the significant rise in unaccompanied minors and family unit aliens” and “related activities.” You might well ask why the world’s most powerful and expensive military would need to be deployed against maybe a football stadium’s-worth of unarmed children and families, but Democratic legislators didn’t think it was really important to spell that out.
- Detain more immigrants in federal prisons.
- Build more immigration jails and internment camps.
- Transfer people back and forth to different immigration jails, transfer them from immigration jails to courts (because they are definitely going to be detained for the duration of their proceedings), and transport them to hospitals when they are about to die, because none of the immigration jails have adequate medical facilities.
- Acquire new properties to warehouse children in. (HEY, AT LEAST THEY’RE NOT KEEPING THEM IN A DUMPSTER FULL OF FLAMING SHIT, IT PROBABLY HAS SOAP AND EVERYTHING, YOU SHOULD BE FUCKING GRATEFUL.)
- Expand the awful, lonely, self-harm-inducing warehouses for children that already exist.
The bill also imposes very important responsibilities on the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, including:
- Making CBP watch a webinar or some shit before we give them millions more dollars.
- Eventually producing a report detailing how soon the brave men serving in our ongoing border war with Canada can be returned to the home front.
- “Prioritizing” not placing children in unlicensed facilities or desert tents.
- Not putting kids in unlicensed facilities or desert tents unless it’s an emergency, okay.
- Letting the Committees on Appropriations know 14 days in advance if they intend to place a kid in a desert tent, or if the child will, and I quote, “otherwise be placed in danger.”
- Remind Congress once a month about all the kids who’ve been locked up for more than three months.
- Avoid putting disabled kids, pregnant kids, or kids under 13 in unlicensed facilities “where feasible.” Who decides what’s feasible? Probably DHS, huh? You’ve seen what they’ve deemed feasible thus far, right?
I’m not going to lie, there’s been a lot of bad stuff happening lately, but this bill has really been filling me with incredible despair. There’s greater public awareness around the inhumanity of our immigration system right now than there has been for years, but lawmakers still don’t get it and pretty clearly never will. (If the tide of public opinion on immigration moves leftward in a few years, I am sure lawmakers will all later characterize this bill as a brave, doomed stand to try to prevent those mass raids on families that Trump has been teasing.) It really goes to show how little Democrats understand, or care, about the plight of families at the border, that they would think throwing a bunch of money at DHS—much of it specifically earmarked for more detention, much of it explicitly condoning the detention even of children under unsafe conditions—represents a “humanitarian” solution. The Senate vote also clearly showed the priorities of the Democratic presidential candidates: “Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., all missed the votes while attending the debates.” I was too angry to watch the debates, but from what I hear, none of you guys did amazingly well, so—I sure hope it felt worth it to you! (Skipping the debate to oppose the expansion of detention would have been a powerful way for one of the front-runners to make a statement, if any of them had cared enough to do it. Bernie could have used the opportunity to tell his supporters that he cares more about children in jail than media spectacles. Alas.)
Alas, all this has happened before, and all this will happen again. In November 2017, I summed up the history of Republican-Democratic negotiations on immigration as follows:
The Democrats have been screwing up on immigration for decades, and they’re showing no signs of changing course now. Their playbook on immigration, with some minor variations, has always gone something like this:
Republicans propose something completely demented and inhumane re. immigration.
Democrats ask for something slightly less demented and inhumane.
Democrats offer to increase border security.
Republicans agree to the slightly less horrifying version of their original plan, plus border security.
Democrats hail this as a political victory, and hint that their willingness to compromise will pave the way for more substantive immigration reforms in the future, which IT NEVER, EVER DOES.
This dreary pantomime has repeated itself over and over throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. Time after time, Democrats have agreed to more border security and gotten virtually no concessions in return.
Quoting myself is extremely obnoxious, I realize, but smugness is one of the few feeble pleasures I still get to enjoy in my otherwise benighted existence. I am sorry it’s not an attractive trait. Also, I am too lazy to write new words to describe the same goddamn thing happening FOR APPROXIMATELY THE MILLIONTH TIME.
4. Julian Castro is the only candidate who understands the immigration system at all
On another note, from reading the debate coverage after the fact, I noted that Julian Castro seems to be the only candidate with any semblance of a grasp on border policy—maybe not shocking, given his personal and political roots in San Antonio (although proximity to the border doesn’t seem to have done Beto’s awareness of the situation much good). At Current Affairs, we have previously mocked Castro for his lackluster track record at HUD and his history of allowing his identical twin Joaquin to impersonate him at mayoral events, but hell, I am super disappointed in everyone right now, and ready to jump ship to anyone who sounds sensible. Castro came out strongly in the debates for decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings (making them a civil offense only), which is a good start. Elizabeth Warren has since adopted the position as well.
I was then inspired to read Castro’s People First Immigration Plan, and guys, it’s pretty solid. He proposes completely ending immigration detention except for “serious cases,” ending all immigration detention by private and for-profit prison companies, internal reforms to ICE and CBP (stopping short of “abolition”), ending MPP, ending metering, guaranteeing attorneys for all children in immigration proceedings, making immigration courts independent from the Department of Justice, reversing Jeff Sessions’ decision last year that cut off access to asylum for domestic violence survivors who were previously eligible, setting up an “inclusive roadmap” to citizenship not just for DACA and TPS recipients, but for all undocumented families without a current pathway to obtain status, speeding up visas for family reunification, increasing refugee admissions, ending the three- and 10-year bars for legal reentry for people with prior deportations, ending the deputization of local law enforcement as immigration officers, and forbidding ICE enforcement at or near churches, schools, and courthouses.
Is it everything I want? No, because I want our entire immigration system torn up by the roots. Is it a lot closer to what I want than anything else I’ve seen? Yes.
Warren and Sanders: Get your act together, please. I wish I could just believe your hearts were in the right places, but I’m tired of vague pronouncements about “comprehensive immigration reform,” an utterly meaningless phrase that, as United We Dream eloquently points out, has only ever been “a trojan horse promising citizenship while carrying a deadly trade-off of more family separation, detention camps, deportations, and pain.”
In the United States, there is an entire parallel enforcement and judicial apparatus specifically designed to make the lives of immigrants miserable. It is a shadow police state that exists only for immigrants. If you are president, you will be the president of that shadow police state, in addition to the separate state that exists for citizens. Tell us what you are going to do about it, and please: Be specific. We have been patient with you long enough.
All opinions expressed here are my own and not on behalf of any organization or group.
* No, I’m not saying our immigration police state is the same thing as the Holocaust, for those of you who are super invested in that apples-and-oranges debate; I am just casually speculating about who would have gone Nazi.
** Those who doubt me, see the following examples ranging from 2011 to 2015 (there may be others dating even further back): https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/13/immigrants-sue-border-patrol/1982681/, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/inside-immigration-icebox, https://twitter.com/aurabogado/status/1143195716044521472, https://www.acluaz.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/doe_v_johnson_complaint_0.pdf
*** NB: Chuck Schumer proposed a near-identical policy during the debates over the terrible 1996 immigration bill, IIRAIRA, that created many of our present border problems. I’m not going back through that whole legislative history to find the citation, but the last time I read it, I distinctly remember him getting all indignant about people applying for asylum in the U.S. who had connecting flights in other countries. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this, I’m just in a bad mood and want to rain brimstone on everyone.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.