President Trump tried to claim Tuesday night that shutting down the federal government over his demand for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a compassionate action — that he is taking a stand on behalf of the American public and even immigrants in response to what he called a “humanitarian and security crisis.” Trump was right about one thing: What’s happening on the southern border is a crisis. But it is his choices that have created it, and his wall would not solve anything.
Trump would have us believe that there is a “crisis” of criminals, terrorists, drugs, child smugglers and “illegal immigrants” flooding into the country from Mexico. Although there are legitimate security issues at the southern border, Trump’s assertions simply are not true. Unauthorized migration has been declining for years; there is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross into the United States by land; by far, most drugs entering the country are smuggled through ports of entry; and, between April and September last year, only 0.25 percent of all family units apprehended involved children who were not related to the adults with whom they were traveling.
In fact, many of the men, women and children at our southern border have fled their native Central American countries in fear of persecution, torture and death. Rather than being criminals and terrorists themselves, they are persecuted innocents, fleeing those same problems that Trump says they’re bringing with them. They have arrived at our border to exercise their legal right to seek safe harbor through the asylum process. But rather than safe harbor, these asylum seekers have encountered the administration’s relentless efforts to demonize, criminalize and dehumanize immigrants through sweeping stereotypes and hate-filled rhetoric.
Asylum seekers at the southern border are being met with abusive and unlawful practices by border officers, forced separation from their children, pretextual criminal prosecutions, long detentions in abhorrent conditions, unilaterally rewritten legal standards, unlawful restrictions on seeking protection based on where a person entered, and efforts to keep asylum seekers in Mexico while they are processed through U.S. legal systems. For example, my law firm represents one family from Honduras — a mother, two teenagers and three toddlers — who fled gang violence and efforts by the MS-13 gang to recruit the teenage children. This family was directly hit by tear gas canisters while seeking to apply to enter the United States after waiting for weeks in Mexico. After in-person advocacy at the border, they were finally permitted to enter for the purpose of seeking asylum. They were then detained for four days with very little food before finally being placed in removal proceedings, where they will eventually present their asylum cases before an immigration judge. We also represent a Honduran woman, a successful small-business owner, who fled MS-13, which had been extorting and threatening her. When she reported these death threats to Honduran police, they did nothing. The threats escalated when MS-13 learned that she had gone to the police, forcing her to flee in fear for her life. Upon entering the United States for the purpose of seeking asylum, she was arrested, incarcerated and criminally prosecuted on charges of illegal reentry to the United States. She has been in federal custody for more than two months, awaiting resolution of the criminal prosecution before she will even have an opportunity to present her fears to a U.S. asylum officer. These are only two examples of this administration’s border security policies that, rather than addressing real security problems, have created, or at best exacerbated, the “humanitarian crisis” at the border.
Yet now, Trump claims to be acting on behalf of immigrants, describing the problem on Tuesday night as a “crisis of the heart and crisis of the soul.” If he truly thinks that, he’s not doing anything to resolve it. His administration is disseminating misinformation about and dehumanizing immigrants; it is tearing immigrant families apart when they need one another the most; it is incarcerating innocent children, creating lifelong captivity trauma at best and, at worst, death; it is, without legal authority, categorically declaring people fleeing domestic and gang violence as not eligible for asylum protection; it is blatantly ignoring U.S. law, which says that anyone “who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival) … may apply for asylum”; it is keeping asylum seekers in dangerous conditions in Mexico as they attempt to navigate the labyrinth of the U.S. asylum system; it is keeping our immigration courts shut down, allowing the backlog of more than 800,000 cases to continue to grow, it is returning refugees to the clutches of their persecutors.
All of these policies have combined to shut the door to asylum seekers at our southern border, leaving them living in squalor and as sitting ducks for further harm as they desperately await an opportunity to ask for protection, all the while being used as political props to appeal to Trump’s political base. That is the real crisis on the border — and Trump isn’t doing anything to solve it.