Borders and Boundaries

On “zero tolerance,” the need to communicate, and the limits of decency

Image created by Sharon Phillips (transformative work/fair use)
To people who are or have ever been my friends, and who now find themselves tempted to debate Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy with me:

Before you tell me that the U.S. has no responsibility to protect refugees from the Northern Triangle, know this: By ratifying the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, Congress adopted international norms on the protection of refugees and made them the law of the land. Congress codified and expanded these commitments in the Refugee Act of 1980, which established permanent procedures for the admission of refugees based on the principles set forth in the Protocol. As Secretary Kirstjen Nielson says, the law is the law.

Moreover, for the past century the U.S. has provided economic aid and military training to brutal and corrupt regimes in Central America which have, in turn, devastated the institutions of civil society. In the 1990s, President Clinton’s so-called crime and immigration reforms resulted in the export of the Los Angeles-based gang MS-13 to the Northern Triangle, where — in a fertile environment of poverty, weak governments and corrupt police — it flourished and grew more violent and potent, to the point where now, in many places, the gang IS the government. So the U.S. is indeed responsible, both legally and historically. If you take issue with my analysis I will hear you out, but history is history.

Before you tell me that we cannot continue to take immigrants into the U.S. at the rate they’ve been entering, or that the admission of lesser-skilled immigrants threatens our economy: In reality, the data shows that immigration levels are stable and significantly off their peak in the early 1990s. The total number of new legal immigrants hovers around 1 million per year — the same level as during the early 1900s when most immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe and when the total U.S. population was approximately one-third what it is today. According to the Pew Research Center, “the unauthorized immigrant population in 2016 [was] 11.3 million, which is statistically no different from the 2009 or 2015 estimates.” This means that net undocumented immigration has come to a virtual standstill.

Meanwhile, in most of the U.S. the domestic working age population is shrinking, while Baby Boomers swell the ranks of retirees. The unemployment rate is below 4 percent, the lowest rate since 2000, and employers are having difficulty filling jobs in a wide range of skilled and unskilled occupations. Immigrant labor is critical to economic growth and prosperity and to the solvency of the social security system. The need for unskilled immigrant labor is particularly obvious in agriculture and domestic labor. If you work in agriculture or domestic labor or have personally lost your job to an immigrant, I recognize that you may have a different perspective. But numbers are numbers.

Before you tell me that asylum seekers who enter without authorization are criminals who must be prosecuted, consider this: When people are fleeing for their lives, and legal ways of seeking protection are blocked, people resort to other means. The urge to survive is at the very core of what it means to be human, to be alive. Yes, the borders of the U.S. are being violated, but it requires neither empathy nor compassion to see that unauthorized border crossings by desperate people are not the same thing as invasions by armies or hordes.

Unauthorized entry into the U.S. is a low-level offense analogous to trespassing, and first-time offenders are generally sentenced to time served and a $10 fine. This is why no previous administration has ever claimed that it “has no choice” but to prosecute asylum seekers who have entered the U.S. without authorization. The discretion to press charges for minor offenses — or not — is implicit in police power. Law enforcement agencies usually exercise this power discriminatorily (consider, for example, the demographics of enforcement of marijuana laws). By revoking federal prosecutors’ authority not to prosecute, “zero tolerance” writes discriminatory enforcement into policy.

Up to this point, we are good. We can talk. If necessary, we can agree to disagree. I still want you to be in my life.

However, if you tell me that refugees threaten our security, and point to American victims of violent crimes committed by undocumented migrants as your evidence, we may have a problem. While a small proportion of migrants (and an even smaller proportion of refugees and asylum seekers, and, I would say, roughly ZERO percent of migrant children) commit violent crime, the rate is way lower than the rate of violent criminality in the domestic population. To paint the entire field of migrants as dangerous — including those who are themselves fleeing from violence — is of a piece with the scapegoating ideologies of fascist regimes, one of which left my mother an orphan at the age of 6. Trump’s spectacles deploying the pain of bereaved families are a masterful use of the politics of fear, but are no different from the cynical messaging of previous administrations seeking to justify black ops, torture, and war.

So — if you have lost a loved one to a homicide committed by an undocumented immigrant (or by a native-born U.S. citizen, for that matter), you have my deepest sympathy and my full agreement that the killer should be brought to justice. But if you advocate for the collective punishment of ALL undocumented immigrants for crimes committed by a few — if you are proposing a moral equivalence between people who have killed, and people who enter without authorization to avoid being killed — then you have lost me.

If you feel the need to tell me that Central American mothers whose children have been taken away brought this on themselves, then we DO have a problem. Not even the Trump administration disputes the fact that the Northern Triangle boasts some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and the prevalence of domestic and gang violence targeting women and children is well documented. Against the backdrop of this reality, it is objectively clear on a macro level that Central American women bring their children to the U.S. because it is the best of their terrible options.

On a micro level, I have personally interviewed dozens of women from the Northern Triangle through the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which has collectively interviewed thousands. While most of these women describe a similar context of violence and discrimination, each woman’s experience is unique, and her trauma and pain is unmistakable. Based on these interviews I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of women who bring their children on the dangerous journey to the U.S. do so because they have no choice.

As a parent, I know that I too would do anything and risk everything to save my children’s lives.

And finally, if you think that ripping children from their parents’ arms — or jailing families indefinitely — is an appropriate way to deter immigration, then we have nothing to talk about. I hope you will eventually see through the mirage that this president is building out of fear, hatred and dehumanization — the virtual wall he is constructing that is so much more powerful and dangerous than any real wall. Until then, please unfriend me, delete my email address and phone number, and forget you ever knew me. As my friend Leslie Watkins Cain has said, “decency is not debatable, and we have zero tolerance for those lacking it to be in our lives.”