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The Human Cost of a Politics of Lies

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Recent accounts and images of the shocking conditions at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) detention centers along the Texas-Mexico border created something of a national uproar, as has the revelation that approximately 9,500 current and former members of that service belong to a Facebook group whose subscribers have routinely posted disparaging and cruel comments concerning migrants and grotesque depictions of Congressional leaders who have expressed concerns about detainees’ treatment.[1] One particularly heinous CBP Facebook group comment suggests how depraved a share of those Border agents have become in the climate of fear and depredation concerning migration that the Trump administration has cultivated. As Pro Publica has reported:

In another thread, a group member posted a photo of a father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande. The pair drowned while trying to ford the river and cross into the U.S.; pictures of the two have circulated widely online in recent days, generating an outcry.

The member asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies were so ‘clean.’ (The picture was taken by an Associated Press photographer, and there is no indication that it was staged or manipulated.) ‘I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS,’ the person wrote, adding, ‘could this be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things’ …[2]

This observation not only reveals a callous unwillingness to recognize the humanity of those who had perished, but also suggests a poisonous conspiratorial disposition to imagine that the plain truth could have been doctored for partisan reasons, when there was no evidence or cause to believe such had occurred. As ugly as these beliefs and behavior are, they appear to have become commonplace among too many CBP agents, who, following President Trump’s lead, have shown themselves willing to regard families coming to the border during the last year to request asylum as “animals” and to imagine that according those men, women and children dignity and human rights was for “soft heads” who did not realize the threat they represented to the nation.[3]

The problem with both propositions is that as large as the migrant numbers have been in recent months, these have consisted overwhelmingly of families fleeing terrible conditions in their homelands and they have certainly not attacked the border or come armed to harm Americans or to take their jobs from them. Rather, a combination of sordid rhetoric from Trump, in combination with the relatively large numbers requesting asylum, has overwhelmed those charged with attending to them, and persuaded many of them that these families deserve to be treated horrifically, whatever their innocence and frailty. To say this situation is concerning profoundly understates its significance for United States governance and hardly captures the utter corruption of those who have adopted these views.

Give this calculatedly cruel situation, symbolized by the deaths of six children in U.S. Border Patrol custody in recent months, as well as the documented inhumane conditions in which many would-be asylees and migrants have been detained by this Administration, it is perhaps worthwhile to step back from Trump’s incendiary and misleading rhetoric and sketch just what concern refugees and asylees pose for our nation.[4] I will first outline what existing policies concerning asylees and refugees are, and highlight the fact that these populations enjoy a different status than those who have illegally entered this country. It is also important to recall that the vast majority of the families that have come to the U.S. border in recent months have requested legal asylum, but they have been confined in detention camps anyway. Again, the lion’s share of them have not been apprehended while seeking to enter the United States illegally. Trump and his administration’s representatives have nonetheless treated these (largely) families far too often as contemptible trash bent on soiling the country they have lawfully petitioned to enter.

Consonant with international law, which, it must be said, its officials played a lead role in crafting, the United States defines asylees as individuals

who sought and obtained protection from persecution from inside the United States or at the border. An asylee is an individual who meets the international definition of refugee – a person with well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. In the U.S., asylum seekers apply for protection from inside the country or at a port of entry.[5]

U.S. law allows individuals to apply for asylum from within the United States, regardless of how they entered the country. All potential asylees undergo an interview/hearing with a highly trained asylum officer or an immigration judge (or both) to determine whether they meet the internationally accepted criteria noted above. Individuals apprehended by CBP agents within the U.S. without a visa are automatically referred to the immigration court system for consideration of their cases. Those courts are currently severely backlogged, with an average wait time of 721 days for a hearing. Prior to the current administration, executive officials routinely released individuals awaiting an asylum examination from custody while their cases were pending, while requiring periodic check-ins. Trump and his appointees, however, have sought as a matter of political choice to release as few individuals as possible—part of the reason for the swift growth of the presently large migrant internment camps along the U.S.-Mexican border.  

Historically, more than 98 percent of individuals petitioning for asylum and released while awaiting their hearing have honored their reporting requirements, and a share of those who did not were unable to do so for reasons other than flight. These facts suggest that the present administration has not adopted the path it has chosen to address an empirical concern, but instead has done so to sustain its stance that those requesting asylum are unworthy or untrustworthy. It is also clear the administration has adopted its position without evidence to support it. To put the matter in perspective, as a proportion of the American labor force and population, in Fiscal Year 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available, the United States granted 20,455 people asylum. That figure amounted to approximately .0127 percent of the current American labor force of approximately 160 million individuals, or .0062 percent of the U.S. population of 327 million persons.  The current acceptance rate for asylum claims is approximately 28 percent. That is, 72 percent of those who applied for U.S. asylum recently have been unsuccessful.

A refugee under United States and international law is a person outside the country of his or her nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.[6]

United States law charges the President of the United States, in consultation with Congress, with determining the number of refugees the nation will admit each year. For Fiscal 2019, that total is 30,000, despite the more than 50 percent surge in the global refugee population that has occurred during the last five years.  President Trump reduced this target figure from 85,000 in Fiscal Year 2016 and it does not appear that even this total will now be met, in part due to the ongoing implementation of the administration’s travel ban, which prevents individuals from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States, as well as selected officials from Venezuela. As is well known, the Syrian civil war and Yemeni conflict alone have displaced millions. The average time for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to process refugee determinations has been rising, and it now averages a bit longer than two years. Again, to place the Trump administration’s 30,000 target figure for refugees in the current fiscal year into perspective, this total represents .00018 percent of the American labor force noted above, or .000079 percent of the United States population. By any measure, this figure could have only an infinitesimal effect on the country’s work force and population, especially in light of the fact that refugees are settled in states and communities across the nation.

I share these facts to illustrate that President Trump’s decision to militarize and securitize the border is profoundly misleading as well as cruelly inappropriate and unnecessary, as is his persistent and apparently deliberate failure to distinguish between those crossing the border illegally and those crossing it to seek asylum, the vast share of whom were families arriving from Central America during the last year. Nonetheless, Trump’s stance appears to have persuaded many Border Control staff members to lose sight of the human and civil rights of those they encounter (and purportedly serve). The president has likewise consistently misled the broader citizenry concerning the characteristics of the immigration issue confronting the nation and has promoted fear of hordes threatening U.S. citizens, “stealing” jobs and “taking advantage” of taxpayer provided services. Indeed, in two recent Tweets seeking to suggest the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, The New York Times, a visiting congressional delegation and other media organizations were lying about conditions in Border facilities, Trump observed:

The Fake News Media, in particular the Failing @nytimes, is writing phony and exaggerated accounts of the Border Detention Centers. First of all, people should not be entering our Country illegally, only for us to then have to care for them. … [7]

The President similarly contended in another Tweet on the same day, concerning asylum particularly, that somehow that status was permitting undue numbers of individuals unauthorized entry to the United States, “… because the Dems won’t change the Loopholes and Asylum. Big Media Con Job!”[8]

None of these assertions is true. They instead represent a dark fairy tale, offered to persuade those willing to believe them to loathe entire populations on the basis of their difference and difficult circumstances, and to blame them for those conditions by labeling them as contemptible and worse. More, it has convinced a share among those who accept the fallacies to believe that the United States should treat those seeking refuge within its borders with a disgraceful lack of dignity, justice and respect and worse.

In sum, Trump’s demagoguery concerning the migration issue has not only found the United States violating its own long practice and international obligations to human rights, but it has also undermined the nation’s self-professed status as a beacon of democratic principles and rights. And since his position has no basis in reality, the country is doing so for no rational reason. If the issue is undue illegal immigration, the American government can work with the nations suffering conditions prompting mass exodus from them, and meanwhile, following due process, take steps to deport those it finds have illegally entered this country. Trump, however, is not working with the affected Central American (Northern Triangle) nations, except to assail them for sending so many people north. Likewise, since the largest number of those asking for entry to the United States from those countries in recent months have requested asylum and have not sought illegal entry, the appropriate policy response is to ensure them a timely hearing in a reasonable period, rather than to blame them for their circumstances or confine them, including their children, often separately, in despicable conditions.

That Trump has chosen to ignore and obscure the reasoned policy course available to him to address this border challenge suggests a deliberate attempt to deceive Americans and to mobilize a share of them on the basis of fear and lies, irrespective of the consequences of that strategy for those it affects, or for U.S. governance and international standing. Lies always have consequences for self-governance, and often profound ones both for their purveyors and for those willing to accept them. All of those supporting Trump’s hate-filled immigration policy charade are demeaned by the Faustian bargain they have accepted.

Notes

[1] Thompson, A.C. “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Mems,” ProPublica, July 1, 2019. https://www.propublica.org/article/secret-border-patrol-facebook-group-agents-joke-about-migrant-deaths-post-sexist-memes, Accessed July 3, 2019. 

[2] Thompson, A.C., “Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group.”

[3] Scott, Eugene. “In reference to ‘animals,’ Trump evokes an ugly history of dehumanization,” The Washington Post, May 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/05/16/trumps-animals-comment-on-undocumented-immigrants-earn-backlash-historical-comparisons/?utm_term=.f69da97de5b5, Accessed July 7, 2019. 

[4] BBC News. “US border: Sixth death of migrant child in custody,” May 23, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48375144, Accessed July 7, 2019. 

[5] Cepla, Zuzana. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Asylum Process,” National Immigration Forum, January 10, 2019, https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-asylum-process/, Accessed July 5, 2019. 

[6] Cepla, Zuzana. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement,” National Immigration Forum, January 25, 2019, https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-refugee-resettlement/, Accessed July 5, 2019. 

[7] Rodrigo, Chris Mills. “New York Times responds after Trump criticizes its reporting on border centers,” The Hill, July 7, 2019,  https://thehill.com/homenews/media/451914-new-york-times-responds-after-trump-criticizes-their-reporting-on-border?fbclid=IwAR3-JfJAihx4CIbkbVvDHK0O4lJTsWT5-WOuesyoNoQVrsIsIpz9PkQY8QU. Accessed July 7, 2019.

[8] @realDonaldTrump. (July 7, 2019). “… brought up, not them) because the Dems won’t change the Loopholes and Asylum. Big Media Con Job!” [Twitter post] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1147955464472338434

 

Publication Date

July 15, 2019

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