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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Trump’s Anti-migrant Rampage Migrates South

Mexico and Central America support or are complicit in advancing Trump’s anti-migrant agenda

It all started with a jumbled threat delivered, as usual, from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

It was clear to anyone watching that this particular tariff threat was another piece of the Trump administration’s “throw spaghetti at the wall” anti-migrant agenda. By this point last spring, they’d pushed myriad options for aggressively limiting all forms of migration, to varying degrees of success: the Muslim ban (success); family separation (success, then hindered by the courts); end birthright citizenship (still trying); punish “sanctuary cities” (fail); build a big, beautiful wall (limited success thanks to military $$$); asylum ban (???); and the Migrant Protection Protocols (keep reading). 

As immigration lawyers and courts have been a problem for the Trump administration, the tariff threat was a test to see how far they could push things outside the reach of U.S. law. In the months since this tweet, the Trump administration has become tremendously successful at exporting anti-migrant policies and rhetoric to the very countries most migrants to the United States come from. Now, before migrants—some fleeing persecution, others suffering the effects of climate change, nearly all living in poverty—even have the chance to be locked up indefinitely in an American immigration prison, they must make it through several countries cooperating with Trump’s white nationalist immigration agenda. 

This reshaping of migration policy in the Americas is no more devastating than in Mexico, where a militarized trap, catch, and deport plan is in full swing. Thousands of Mexican soldiers, police, and immigration agents have been deployed across the south, catching nearly everyone who can’t afford a smuggler. On the U.S.-Mexico border, they’re cooperating with Trump’s cruel, senseless asylum policies and acting as a first line of defense for the U.S. Border Patrol.  

Leading the charge is Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly referred to as AMLO)—a self-proclaimed leftist, humanist, and voice for the poor—who became president in a landslide in 2018 and still pretends to be a defender of migrants. 

“I refer you to the Bible, which talks about how to treat the outsider,” AMLO said about migrants at a press conference in mid-June, days after signing a deal to work with Trump. “He who mistreats the foreigner, the migrant, especially when they do it out of necessity, is not acting with humanity.”

If I hadn’t rejected my Catholic upbringing and knew less about Mexico, this jumbled delivery of scripture would really have been quite moving. AMLO is a powerful orator. But the sentiment is cynical and cruel in the face of reality, one in which his government works with the United States to leave thousands of these “outsiders” wallowing in Mexico or deported back to suffering and death. He’s joined a popular war against Central Americans (not to mention migrants from Africa and Asia), refugees who are fleeing violence, poverty, and climate change. 

But what AMLO fails to grasp is that this war is coming for him and the people he claims to represent, too. It will come for all of us. 

AMLO was poised to be the Trump foiler. He replaced the loathed Enrique Peña Nieto with the strongest mandate ever for a Mexican president. He won 53 percent of the popular vote in a multiparty system where previous winners have struggled to crack 40 percent. With allied blocs, his party runs both chambers of Congress and controls the government of Mexico City. He has a huge, fervent base that trusts his every word. During his campaign in 2017, AMLO published a click-baity book called Oye, Trump (Listen Up, Trump), which he said was a call to “defend our countrymen [in the United States] and defend migrants from around the world in the face of the authoritarian attitude of President Trump.” He blasted his predecessor for doing the “dirty work” for the Americans on migration. 

Trump’s simple economic threat back in May was all it took for AMLO to change course. The specter of the loss of billions in cross-border trade sent AMLO’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard sprinting to Washington to make a deal. It was immediately clear that AMLO had folded, completely and without resistance. Briefly, the deal said:

Given the dramatic increase in migrants moving from Central America through Mexico to the United States, both countries recognize the vital importance of rapidly resolving the humanitarian emergency and security situation. The Governments of the United States and Mexico will work together to immediately implement a durable solution.

The arrangement was squishy and vague. As you can see, it included face-saving words like “humanitarian emergency” and “durable solution.” But it was an awful deal for Mexico that contained no specific benchmarks and no potential benefits. For Trump, it was a new achievement in his most successful and enduring political platform. “See?” he could say. “Even Mexico thinks migrants are a threat and Something Must Be Done.

As for the practical workings of the deal, they can be split into two pieces.

The first is the blunt tool, used over and over again with no short- or long-term benefits: detain and deport any foreign migrant who is found in Mexico without papers. Ebrard—who since that June 7 deal has become a sort of super-minister, dictating the agenda of the interior ministry (which oversees immigration policy), public security forces, and various branches of the military—rolled out this show of force quickly. 

In June, more than 20,000 Mexican National Guard members were deployed to the southern border with Guatemala and the northern border with the United States. At the time the deal was signed, this brand-new civilian-military force only existed on paper, but somehow they magically appeared on the Mexican-Guatemalan border just days after the deal and remain there today. (When I spoke to National Guard troops down there in mid-June, almost all of them were reassigned drug-war soldiers and marines who had slapped on “National Guard” armbands.) 

The military was often flanked by migration agents, who set up checkpoints across southern Mexico where migrants travel. They began raiding public plazas looking for migrants. They hovered near migrant shelters for easy targets. 

In just about a week, the migration paths of Mexico had transformed. Groups of migrants—sometimes fit young men, but often entire families including grandmas and babies—were pushed off the safer migrant routes dotted by humanitarian shelters and into the jungles of southern Mexico, walking entire days with no food, water, or access to shelter. 

While on assignment in southern Mexico in June, I met a group of Honduran migrants who had successfully evaded soldiers and immigration agents on these remote paths for nearly a week. However, they had been robbed and beaten by men in police uniforms. 

In just a couple weeks, the sweeping brutality of Mexico’s anti-immigrant fight became clear. A 32-year-old Guatemalan man died of an alleged heart attack inside an armored Mexican immigration van. (The migration agency has not explained the death further or responded to my inquiries.) Several major Mexican bus companies announced they would be requiring immigration status in order to buy a ticket. Mexican migration agents carried out a mass raid at a site where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors were providing medical and psychological care and handing out hygiene kits to migrants, despite it being illegal in Mexico for immigration authorities to enter shelters or other humanitarian spaces. “We are already seeing the consequences of criminalizing migrants and asylum seekers and forcing them underground,” said Sergio Martín, the Head of Mission in Mexico for MSF. “The conclusion is obvious: People in need of medical services are not receiving them.” Additionally, two Mexican migrant rights activists were arrested and accused of being human traffickers. (The charges crumbled under the slightest inspection and both activists are free but have since been repeatedly harassed by authorities.)

The results have been quick and drastic. In June, Mexico detained 31,564 migrants, up 33 percent from the previous month and up 230 percent from the year before. In the same month it deported 21,912 people, up 33 percent from May and up 180 percent from the previous May. Arrests and deportations in June were the highest figures in more than a decade for Mexico. 

The renewed push against migrants has Mexico’s migrant detention centers filling up fast. The most infamous migrant prison, called Siglo XXI (meaning 21st century; I’m not even gonna unpack the symbolism here), started cramming more than 2,000 people inside it in June, more than double its capacity. Testimonies from detainees and human rights workers allowed inside (journalists are strictly prohibited from entering detention centers) describe a hellhole, both as a figure of speech and literal description for one room in Siglo XXI. This is El Pozo (The Well), a windowless, filthy, solitary confinement room with no toilet. Jorge, a 21-year-old who fled gangs in El Salvador with his siblings and his mother (Jorge’s mother was also running from an abusive ex connected to gangs), told me he was in El Pozo for three days. He was occasionally given food or a glass of dirty water, and forced to shit and piss in the corner, although that didn’t really matter because the whole floor was covered in human waste anyway. 

Most migrants inside Siglo XXI sleep on dirty concrete floors. If they aren’t separated from their children on arrival, mothers say they don’t sleep out of fear their children will be stolen from them by guards. Migrants report regular beatings by guards and near-constant verbal abuse and degradation.

There are dozens of these filthy immigrant prisons across Mexico, and humanitarian workers say nearly every single one is over capacity. According to a Freedom of Information request, 26 migrants have died inside these prisons since 2014.

While most caught in the dragnet are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the city of Tapachula near the Mexico-Guatemala border has become a prison city for African migrants, most from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They can’t legally be detained indefinitely, Mexico doesn’t have the diplomatic capability to deport them, and immigration agents won’t allow them to travel north. So hundreds are stranded in a foreign city with no support and no rights. 

Up on the U.S.-Mexico border, National Guard troops in Ciudad Juarez have stationed themselves facing south from the border fence, physically stopping anyone trying to leave Mexican territory. Migrant advocates in Mexico have long criticized the government for being a de facto border force for the gringos. Now, they are literally a U.S. border force, something Trump has proudly recognized.

But that was just the first piece of the U.S.-Mexico deal.

The second piece—less overtly violent but certainly as cruel and sadistic—is full cooperation with the farcically-named Migrant Protection Protocols, dubbed “Remain in Mexico.” This policy allows U.S. authorities to send an asylum seeker back to Mexico to wait out their months- or years-long asylum process. Mexico quietly and reluctantly allowed the program to start slowly back in January 2019, but in June, it hit full speed. From January 29 to June 7, 10,393 asylum seekers were sent back to Mexico. From June 8 until September 30, more than 38,000 more were sent back to Mexico, at a rate of more than 300 per day.

MPP (or as migrant advocates have aptly called it, The Migrant Persecution Protocols) is a horror show. In practice, the vast majority of the nearly 50,000 asylum seekers fleeing violence are dumped back into Mexico with nothing: no food, no belongings, no money, and nowhere to go. They are sent to Tijuana (the city with the highest murder rate in the Western hemisphere), Ciudad Juárez (a longtime battleground of the drug trade), Nuevo Laredo (a literal pipeline for handing migrants over to organized crime), and Matamoros (listed as “Do Not Travel due to crime and kidnapping” by the U.S. State Department), among others.

In a just asylum system, most people fighting an immigration case in U.S. courts would be living in the U.S. while looking for—or meeting with—a lawyer. But many current asylum-seekers who come to the U.S. through Mexico are sent back across the U.S.-Mexican border to live a practically homeless existence in a country they don’t know, and are expected to prepare for immigration court in a language they usually don’t understand. 

Dumping these vulnerable people into some of Mexico’s most violent, cartel-ravaged cities is a godsend for organized crime. Nearly every major media outlet in the United States and Mexico has reported on the kidnapping, rape, extortion, and even murder of asylum seekers under MPP. Often, migration officials or police in Mexico are complicit. Victims frequently can’t tell the difference between criminals and the authorities. A Honduran woman under Remain in Mexico gave testimony that she had been kidnapped by Mexican Federal Police in Ciudad Juarez, handed over to three men who raped her and then extorted money from her family in the United States. Likewise, a transgender Salvadoran woman was kidnapped and raped in Mexico on the journey north. After escaping, she handed herself in to U.S. authorities to request asylum, only to be sent back to Mexico under MPP. 

This, while utterly nightmarish, is also extremely predictable. For years, Mexico has been a horror for migrants as corrupt officials and organized crime have exploited their vulnerability. The deal between AMLO and Trump has only worsened the situation, not created it wholesale. And while the new Remain in Mexico protocols officially allow asylum seekers the right to plead to stay in the United States, civil servants have made it clear that migrants aren’t allowed to even make the argument that they ought to stay because they could face violence back in Mexico. A Nicaraguan man snuck over the border still bleeding from a knife attack in Tijuana and was sent back to Mexico under MPP after receiving stitches.

American and Mexican officials are fully aware of the results of MPP. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan said in September that CBP had heard “anecdotal allegations” of crimes committed against people in MPP, but that “Mexico has provided nothing to the United States corroborating or verifying those allegations.” When confronted on specific cases of kidnapping, extortion and abuse, foreign minister Ebrard said these were few and far between, but he would “look into it.” Instead of protecting them locally, the Mexican government has been bussing asylum seekers under MPP out of dangerous cities to the opposite end of the country, thousands of miles away from their U.S. court hearings, practically guaranteeing that they will be unable to gain asylum.

Amid all this horror, foreign minister Ebrard proudly trotted up to Washington in September to get a pat on the head from Trump about all the good work they’ve been doing, citing a 58.7 percent reduction of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border since June.

“The president was kind, positive, and appreciative of the work Mexico is doing,” said Ebrard. “He told me that he looked positively on the work we’re doing.”

After the meeting, Trump tweeted a perplexing, indecipherable graph made by Mexican officials to show that “undocumented migrants staying in the U.S.” had fallen by 92 percent. (These Mexican officials should at least get credit for knowing how to manipulate Trump with a meaningless chart that roughly translates to, “You’re doing great work, Mr. President, and everyone is noticing it.”)

But it’s never enough. 

“The leaders agreed that while progress has been made, more work remains in order to further reduce the flow of illegal migrants to the United States,” a White House press release said of the meeting. 

It will never be enough.

What’s so disturbing watching this as someone living in Mexico is how easy it has all been. With a snap of fingers, Mexico has ramped up its arrests and deportations of migrants. In the blink of an eye, tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been left essentially homeless in Mexican border towns. Migrant beatings, harassment, kidnappings, rapes, and extortion by police, migration agents, and organized crime have gone unnoticed in the United States, disappearing into the U.S. public’s vague sense of “well, that’s Mexico.” 

(Meanwhile, AMLO hasn’t translated this brutal efficiency into action against the genuine crises in Mexico. For example, Mexico’s murder total is on pace for a new record again this year. 40,000 people are officially listed as missing and 37,000 human remains have yet to be identified. Mexico is no closer to punishing the state actors responsible for the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. The border states are particularly violent areas, and the murder rate is especially high. Alas, making decisions in Mexico City—1,000 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border—provides a nice buffer from the horror.)

While AMLO still frequently trots out kind words about “the outsider,” it’s more common to hear members of his administration express glee over the crackdown. After firing the former chief of the National Migration Institute—a thoughtful, humanitarian professor who had pushed back against the U.S. deal—AMLO appointed a blustery, aggressive former head of the federal prison system to lead the immigration crackdown, and he has taken charge with stomach-churning gusto. 

“Mexicans would love the assistance migrants receive,” Francisco Garduño Yáñez said in one of his first interviews after taking over immigration duties. Referring to migrant activists, whose activities have been partially criminalized by AMLO’s government, Yáñez added, “Would these humanitarian activists allow 50 people to bust into their homes?” Migrants, incidentally, receive nothing in Mexico beyond the most basic medical care and gruel inside a detention center. Humanitarian workers in Mexico often do literally welcome migrants into their homes—it’s the reason many migrant shelters even exist here. The U.N. provides most financial assistance for resettling refugees. 

These downright lies have fed rising anti-immigrant sentiment, which has had serious consequences. Migrant advocacy—a loosely connected network of shelters and soup kitchens run by NGOs, churches, and community groups—is under physical attack in Mexico

In September, men destroyed the offices of the Sagrada Familia migrant shelter in Apizaco, a few hours outside Mexico City. They poured gallons of gasoline at the shelter but fled before lighting it. 

In Saltillo, Coahuila, National Guardsmen tried to break into a shelter to arrest migrants in July, despite the aforementioned Mexican laws which clearly stipulate that migration enforcement can’t happen inside or near shelters. Less than a week later, police in the same city murdered Honduran migrant Marco Tulio Perdomo after he left this shelter with his eight-year-old daughter. Authorities initially claimed he had a gun, then later said he had been with drug dealers. Later, they dropped both of those stories and agreed to compensate Perdomo’s family 1.5 million pesos ($76,000). Two days after Perdomo was murdered, Reverend Aaron Mendez and Alfredo Castillo, who ran a shelter in Nuevo Laredo on the U.S.-Mexico border largely welcoming people sent back under Remain in Mexico, were kidnapped after cartel members demanded they hand migrants over to the cartel. There’s been no sign of either man since. 

As Mexico’s leaders either tacitly permit or openly usher in unforeseen levels of persecution against migrants and those who support them, they celebrate the crackdown domestically while still pretending virtue internationally. In June, after Trump went on another of his “just throwing shit against the wall” Twitter rants, this time about a supposed operation to deport millions of undocumented people from the United States, Ebrard announced that Mexico would be preparing its consulates to protect Mexicans in the United States against mass deportations.

“If necessary, I will go to the United States to defend our citizens,” he said.

Ebrard hasn’t been bothered, meanwhile, to defend the desperate Mexicans trapped in the crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border. A CBP policy known as “metering” limits how many people are allowed to request asylum every day “the right way,” a.k.a. at an official border crossing. This has created informal waitlists in Mexican border towns to manage the flow. On any given day, 26,000 people (most from Central America, some from Africa and Asia) are waiting to enter the United States “the right way” to request asylum. Thousands of Mexican citizens trying to flee persecution have been caught here too, with a choice between hoping their persecutors don’t find them, and sneaking across the border and facing the consequences (such as indefinite detention in a U.S. immigration prison). 

Mexico has long been horrible for migrants, who trudge through a maze of corrupt officials, violent cartels, and treacherous terrain to reach the U.S. border in the first place. The continued failure of the Mexican government to protect these migrants could be interpreted, in the kindest terms, as AMLO throwing up his hands. Organized crime and corruption run rampant through Mexico, and vulnerable migrants make for easy targets. 

But the difference is that AMLO has chosen not simply to ignore migrants, but to target them specifically. He and Ebrard may pretended otherwise with their soaring rhetoric, but AMLO’s administration has been complicit in the worst of the Trump administration’s policies. And in doing so, AMLO has helped ensure his own popularity. A poll in June from the Mexican newspaper El Financiero showed that on June 4 (days before the agreement), 43 percent of Mexicans said the country should “support migrants and give them free passage” while 54 percent said they should “close their borders.” 12 days later, only 34 percent percent wanted to support migrants and 63 percent wanted to close the borders. Two-thirds agreed that Mexico should militarize its southern border with the National Guard to stop migrants from entering Mexico and eventually reaching the United States. The only public dissent circles around Remain in Mexico—only 36 percent of Mexicans think the policy is a good idea. AMLO’s approval rating currently hovers around 60 percent.

Admittedly, there is an argument to be made for controlling borders and the migration of foreigners into one’s territory: sovereignty, national security, etc. (It’s not a very good argument.) But the logic of protecting borders disappears entirely when a country begins stopping its own people or foreign migrants from leaving the country. Mexico’s willingness to do this by deploying the National Guard on the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the Mexico-Guatemala border is distressing enough. But they’re not alone.

On September 12, the Salvadoran government rolled out its own border patrol—they are called Patrulla Fronteriza, a literal Spanish translation of the English phrase “border patrol.” The usual national security or sovereignty justifications for border protection have been dispensed with; the Patrulla Fronteriza have been stationed near the El Salvador-Guatemala border with the mission to stop Salvadoran citizens as well as people fleeing Nicaragua and the thousands of African migrants who use this route every year. (By the way, preventing someone from leaving their own country is against international law but, as with all international law, I’m not holding my breath on enforcement.) El Salvador’s new president, 37-year-old Nayib Bukele, which most media raves about as a reformer and “social media star,” has spearheaded these efforts.

(Bukele, incidentally, has publicly stated, “President Trump is nice and cool. I’m also nice and cool and we both use Twitter a lot. We get along well.” He did not demand, on Twitter or otherwise, the release of thousands of Salvadoran citizens currently languishing in American immigration prisons.)

Just a week after deploying the Patrulla Fronteriza, Bukele agreed to an “asylum cooperative agreement” that would allow the United States to ship Honduran asylum seekers back to El Salvador, under the laughable claim that it is a “safe” country for them (you will not be surprised to learn that the same violent gangs operate in all of these unstable neighboring countries). Five days after the Salvadoran deal was signed, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary Kevin McAleenan announced a similar deal with Honduras itself, boasting, “President Juan Orlando Hernandez from Honduras is a strong partner to the U.S. and his team is working effectively with DHS to combat irregular migration and transnational criminal organizations.” (What McAleenan failed to mention was that Hernandez himself is alleged to be part of a transnational criminal organization run by his brother to traffic drugs and launder money.)

El Salvador and Honduras are not the only countries to accept these sorts of deals: Back in July, Guatemala agreed to a similar arrangement. All of these deals are mangled versions of something called a “safe third country” agreement. The idea behind them is that if an asylum seeker passes through a “safe” country, they must apply for asylum there and not continue on to another country. “Safe third country” agreements are often used by global north countries to send asylum seekers back to global south countries. The most glaring case of this today is the European Union sending Syrian asylum seekers in Greece back to Turkey. 

Explaining how ludicrous all these “safe third country” deals are is easy: In 2018, Guatemala settled only 20 asylum claims, while 33,000 of its own fleeing citizens requested asylum in the United States. In 2017, El Salvador resettled 0 refugees. In 2018, it resettled 45. While violence has fallen in recent years, El Salvador was the most violent country in the world in 2016 and violence is on the rise there once again. Honduras, which is run by an alleged drug trafficker, election thief, and repeated abuser of human rights, has no refugee system whatsoever. 

These “asylum cooperative agreements” are vague and implementation is uncertain (although the deal with Guatemala, previously stayed by the courts, is now moving ahead). Whether or not these agreements come to fruition, they send a message: Further and further south, countries are happily agreeing to spread Trump’s message of closed borders, even if they stand to gain virtually nothing and it’s clear their claims of “protection” and “human rights” are laughable.

I don’t know if AMLO or Ebrard or Yáñez or Bukele or Hernández or any of the other politicians across Mexico and Central America who are making deals with the United States to stop migrants are personally upset by the decisions they’ve made. I don’t know if they return home from Washington ashamed, unable to sleep. I don’t care, frankly, because they’ve all made the same calculus: The people I’m hurting can’t do anything about it. The lost trade or foreign aid that would result from fighting the United States, however, would show up on balance sheets, sending the IMF and ratings agencies to express “serious concern” about the countries’ financial health. That would be unacceptable.

In the meantime, migrants disappear quietly. They languish in filthy jail cells, drinking toilet water. They collapse in the remote Sonoran desert and die from dehydration. They disappear into a black pickup on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, until one day their unidentified remains are piled up alongside more unidentified remains.

Obviously, Donald Trump is a bumbling, egomaniacal, attention-deficient, dopey grandpa with withering cognitive skills. But he deserves credit where he is actually effective, and above all he has been effective on immigration. 

“To all those open-border activists, who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of social justice. These policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil,” he told the U.N. General Assembly on September 24

“When you undermine border security, you are undermining human rights and dignity,” he said. “Many of the countries here today are coping with the challenges of uncontrolled migration. Each of you has the absolute right to protect your borders. And so, of course, does our country.”

On September 8, the Trump administration protected our borders once more. While hundreds of Bahamians boarded a ferry towards the United States after Hurricane Dorian had flattened most of the island country, officials started dragging certain Bahamians, including children, off the ferry. The United States had just moments before changed the entrance requirements for Bahamians in the wake of a devastating storm, the kind made worse every year by climate change. 

“I don’t want to allow people who weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very very bad drug dealers,” said Trump, inserting “the Bahamas” into this particular variation on one of his favorite phrases.

This cruelty at borders, in the face of economic misery, increased violence, and worsening climate crises is no longer an aberration—this is the status quo. This should scare you. You. Not just because it’s morally wrong, not just because it makes you upset, not just because you should care about other people, but because it’s coming for you and me and all of us. 

Borders aren’t real (have you ever been to one not marked by a fence or a gate?), but the significance we grant them constantly changes. For the vast majority of its history, the line that divided the United States and Mexico wasn’t very clear, except for the disparate economic opportunities that existed on each side. Today, the line is violently, painfully clear, still marked by economic disparity, but granted new powers of extortion, immiseration, and rejection. The same is happening with the line that divides Mexico and Guatemala. And Guatemala and El Salvador, and so on.

How soon until the meaning behind the invisible, arbitrary lines that divide the contiguous United States change? Trump recently said he was building a wall on the Colorado border. This was obviously a sign of his malfunctioning brain, but it felt like less like an error when, just days later, CBP’s Mark Morgan declared, “Every town, every city, every state is a border town, a border city, a border state.” How long until Louisianans are treated like Bahamians? It might be five years and it might be a hundred. It seems unrecognizable early on because the most disenfranchised and least powerful are brutalized first. Those of us with a U.S. passport are safe for now, more or less. But as climate change worsens, it’s undeniably the direction we’re moving towards. 

And we’re not alone: The U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel proudly announced she would “end the freedom of movement for people once and for all.” In South Africa, violent attacks against migrants from other African countries are intensifying again. More than 1,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean for the sixth straight year as the European Union continues to criminalize humanitarian aid.

When making decisions about immigration, you can only move in one direction or the other: closed or open. You can push policy that recognizes birthplace as dumb luck and migration as an effort to not be trapped by that dumb luck. Or you can push policy that violently enforces dumb luck, where babies are born in jail cells, where refugees choose suicide over deportation, where police prevent the persecuted from escaping death, where politicians deflect their own corruption and incompetence and failure by pointing at the “invaders,” where snipers perch on top of walls, slaughtering kids and activists and journalists who dare to get too close. 

That’s the world Trump believes in, because of course someone with his dumb luck would have to believe in violently enforcing birth status. With lots of help from 34-going-on-65-year-old advisor and proud white nationalist Stephen Miller, Trump has developed a hardened, incisive, and clear agenda on migration. His advisors have used the post-9/11 unchecked madness of the Department of Homeland Security to cause the uncountable suffering, trauma, or death of thousands of migrants. They have shifted the Overton window so much that advisors had to tell Trump he couldn’t build an alligator and snake-infested moat on the border, or order agents to shoot migrants in the leg to slow them down. That particular plan was a touch too far, too immediate, too openly grotesque. When it comes to destroying the lives of migrants, Trump’s advisors prefer to use the quiet machinery of the law.

If Trump is defeated in 2020, the next president could quickly undo much of the immediate damage he’s done to immigrants and refugees. Julián Castro has led the way in pushing to end the criminalization of migration. Elizabeth Warren has built a comprehensive, targeted plan on top of that. Bernie Sanders has pushed beyond both of them, saying he’ll put a moratorium on deportations, break up immigration agencies, and allow all undocumented immigrants a path toward legal status. A Democratic president could end the punitive deals with Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They could return immigration laws to their pre-Bill Clinton era crackdown. But do they care to do any more than that? Do they care to make the moral case that a just society never restricts opportunity to birthplace?

Sadly, I’m not sure any of them have the same passionate intensity as Trump and his ilk. There is plenty of Democratic rhetoric about ending cruelty towards migrants but little about welcoming them as full, contributing members of society, rather than letting them remain an undocumented, contingent, legally precarious underclass of unseen laborers. There is little talk of migration as an opportunity and a gift, rather than a burden that must be handled. And I certainly don’t hear any talk of preaching this message around the world, and how we might push our allies into openness towards migrants. Threatened by climate change, our world is only becoming more susceptible to violent border nativism. Undoing Trump will not be enough.

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