President Trump has always had an odd idea of what constitutes strength. This was evident again last week, when, a day after U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at a crowd of Central American migrants, as some tried to rush across the border from Tijuana, he boasted about the incident at a rally. “Frankly, if we didn’t show them strength and a strong border,” he said, “you would have hundreds of thousands of people pouring into our country.” Strength is a display, in other words, meant to demoralize the vulnerable. “We are doing a job,” Trump added. “We’re doing what’s right.”
He was wrong on both counts. It is not a President’s job to try to renounce a law that promises even undocumented people already in this country an opportunity to apply for asylum, as Trump did, until a federal district court temporarily stopped him. And it is not right to approach the issue of immigration, as Trump has done, with an indifference to human tragedy, cavalier threats to use lethal force and to close the border, and a zeal to divide. There are now more than six thousand migrants in encampments in Tijuana—many of them part of a caravan that has travelled from Honduras, and more than a thousand of whom are children—and conditions there are worsening by nearly every measure: sanitation, illness, grief, frustration, and anger. At the San Ysidro crossing, where many of the migrants are hoping to claim asylum, officials are processing fewer than a hundred cases a day.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, said in a statement that the President’s railing about the caravan was just a sign that he was “desperate to change the subject from health care.” Trump is, demonstrably, a showman whose act relies on bigotry. The migrants are not an invasion, as he would have it. But neither should they be treated simply as a distraction, or an abstraction. The midterms are over, and the issues raised by the presence of the migrants deserve to be addressed seriously and directly.
A fair approach would begin with recognizing that a person seeking asylum has a right to be heard, as an individual, by immigration authorities. Trump seems to think that if he orders authorities to stop listening to the migrants’ stories they’ll just go away. Or perhaps he thinks that if they try to enter the country anyway he can use the pictures as fodder for his drive to build a wall. Last week, he told Politico that border security was, politically, “a total winner,” adding that he will veto funding bills, shutting down much of the government, unless he gets the money for his wall. He wants five billion dollars; Schumer has counter-offered an earlier figure of $1.6 billion for non-wall security, and some fencing. A key deadline falls on December 7th.
Traditionally, the basis for a successful asylum claim has been a well-grounded fear of persecution, based on one’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. That last term has had a shifting meaning in immigration law. Under the Obama Administration, it came to include many survivors of domestic violence. Trump’s former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, reversed course, instructing immigration judges to turn down claims citing domestic or gang violence, which is rife in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Conditions in those countries, combined with a growing awareness of the legal possibilities, have contributed to an increase in the number of migrants, particularly families, who seek asylum. There is now a backlog of about a million immigration cases.
It would make sense, and would build faith in the system, to hear migrants’ claims far more expeditiously, as long as each gets careful consideration, and the courts aren’t turned into the deportation conveyor belts that Trump wants them to be. Many people in the caravan have what may be, on their face, valid claims under current law. More immigration judges are needed to hear them; at the moment there are only a few hundred. (The Justice Department has begun speeding up the hiring process.) Coöperation with Mexico is essential, too. More broadly, the conundrum is how to balance the integrity of the law with the human impulse to regard “asylum” as another name for the haven that many Americans’ parents and grandparents found in the last century.
Trump has repeatedly said that the Democrats believe in “open borders and socialism,” and that they are recruiting criminals to come to America, with the help of shadowy financiers, in furtherance of their party’s dark aims, like winning elections. There is no conspiracy, and Democrats in Congress have in fact worked for significant measures on border security, such as adding and equipping more agents, built into plans that include a pathway to legal status for the Dreamers—a crucial element in any comprehensive reform. (By contrast, some Republican proposals, such as sharply limiting family reunification, seem concerned less with border security than with a perceived demographic threat.) At the same time, an increasing number of Democrats have been less open to compromise, pulling the Party in different directions. The newly elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, both of New York, have called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, wants to build Trump’s wall.
Gillibrand is among the Democrats considering a Presidential run in 2020. In 2016, both parties’ primaries became laboratories for experimenting with positions on immigration. The Republicans ended up with Trump’s mad-scientist formula for a Muslim ban and attacks on “anchor babies.” (His assault on birthright citizenship has been his most un-American act as President.) Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, came close to pledging not to deport anyone who wasn’t a criminal. That position, in part, explains the vexed response to her comments to the Guardian last month, in which she said that European governments might as well give up on the idea of “refuge,” lest they continue to lose power to right-wing populists.
A better alternative for the 2020 campaign is to engage with voters and to convince them that a more generous immigration policy—one that, for a start, respects the asylum system and protects the Dreamers—is not only manageable but, in terms of our national ideals, a victory. That is the job, and that is what’s right. ♦
The New Yorker · by Amy Davidson Sorkin