We have criminalized migrants and terrorized their children
How did we get to a policy that violates the human rights of immigrants and terrorizes children by separating families? There is a long history of enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, but President Donald Trump’s policies hark back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Congress sought to maintain a “white” America.
During that time Congress banned Asian immigration, set quotas on immigrants outside Northern and Western Europe, and tried to bar Mexicans. However, employers in the Southwestern United States needed cheap labor to work the ranches, mines and railroads. To resolve the conflict between the employers and those who wanted to restrict immigration, in 1929 Congress settled on a criminal statute which punished migrants, mostly Mexicans, who made an unauthorized entry. Then, in the 1930s, the federal government, joined by state and local officials, rounded up hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and their U.S. citizen children and deported them to Mexico.
The ebb and flow of migration from south of the border led to ever greater restrictions and ultimately, to the militarization of the border. To wit:
By 1940 the U.S. government built federal prisons in El Paso, Tucson and Los Angeles to house the tens of thousands of Mexicans prosecuted for unlawful entry.
1942-1964: The Bracero Program, an international agreement, allowed temporary migrant farmworkers from Mexico. Prosecutions abated during and after World War II as the need for Mexican workers increased.
1986: The Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized more than 3 million migrants, but imposed new employer sanctions against hiring unauthorized migrants.
1990-1996: Congress dramatically expanded funding for enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border. A 7-mile steel wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was built in 1991, expanding to 14 miles two years later.
1992: The Border Patrol had grown to 5,000 agents and a budget of $325 million. The Border Patrol added stations and checkpoints, built detention centers, and received more equipment, including night vision goggles, surveillance systems, and helicopters for each sector.
1992-1998: The number of immigration-related criminal prosecutions doubled. Most prosecutions targeted Mexicans and Central Americans.
1996: Congress streamlined deportation, mandated detention and diminished legal opportunities for migrants to stay in the U.S.
2001: After the September 11 attacks, considerable resources were devoted to securing the U.S.-Mexico border under the guise of a need for increased national security against terrorists.
2011: The number of Border Patrol agents reached 21,000, most stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border. Half of all federal criminal prosecutions in the United States were immigration related, most of them against Mexicans and Central Americans.
2012-2015: Federal spending for immigration enforcement reached $18 billion in 2012, and became the highest priority for federal law enforcement. A network of detention facilities, including for-profit prisons, blanketed the Southwest at a cost in 2015 of $2 billion. By 2015, border fencing had increased to 650 miles at an additional cost of $2.4 billion.
The situation would get much worse under the current administration. Trump’s campaign rhetoric had capitalized on the fears of a marginalized segment of white America by attacking Mexican migrants, calling them criminals and rapists, and promising to have Mexico pay to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Within a week of his inauguration, Trump was making good on his tacit campaign promise to make America “white” again.
Trump issued executive orders restricting immigration from predominately Muslim countries. Data on refugee resettlement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that in 2017 the number of refugees resettled to the U.S. dropped 67 percent from the previous year. This year, the Trump administration has lowered the refugee ceiling to 45,000, the lowest cap since the Refugee Act was adopted by Congress.
Trump has called on Congress to eliminate long-standing immigrant visa categories, including those frequently used by Mexicans and Central Americans to reunite with U.S. family members.
Trump rendered more than a million migrants more vulnerable to deportation when he rescinded DACA permits for young migrants brought to the U.S. by their parents and Temporary Protective Status, long-standing protection for Central Americans.
Trump has aggressively increased immigration enforcement and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward all unauthorized immigration. His administration has ordered more criminal prosecutions at the border and targeted for arrest and long term detention all unauthorized migrants without regard to their eligibility for benefits under the law.
There are an estimated 11.1 million unauthorized migrants in the country and most have resided in the U.S. longer than 10 years. Reportedly, there are 4 million U.S. citizen children with an unauthorized migrant parent. The Trump administration abandoned previous policies protecting the parents of children born in the U.S. from deportation.
Then, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would extend the filing of criminal charges against asylum seekers with children, victims of the extreme violence perpetrated by drug cartels and criminal gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
What ensued reached previously unseen levels of cruelty as families were torn apart at the border. Approximately 2,000 children, some under 5 years of age, were forcibly taken from their parents — without giving any information of where they would be kept or when they would return.
In the face of widespread condemnations and legal challenges, Trump defended the policy as restoring law and order and charged that the migrants were criminals and gang members. Only after a bipartisan outcry did he back down on the separation of children from their parents.
Even as the administration rescinded the policy to separate families, it made no plans to reunify the children with their parents. Some parents were deported without their children, and others had to obtain a federal court order to reunite them. Another federal court denied Trump administration efforts to indefinitely expand the detention of migrants and their children.
The scars on the separated children of migrants remain. Studies show that long term detention and deportation of migrants results in substantial economic, social and psychological damage to their children. Damage to brains and bodies can last a lifetime. We do not know the number of children who will by ultimately affected as such “zero tolerance” policies continue unabated.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance’ toward immigration persists, and unless Trump is restrained by the courts and Congress, he will cause untold injury to migrants and their families. In the last 25 years and at a cost of billions in taxpayer dollars, the U.S. government has succeeded in deporting more Mexicans and Central Americans than at any other time in its history.
Is it now time to rethink and reframe our immigration laws and policies, and not in terms of what divides us by race and national origin, but in terms of what our communities’ needs and what nurtures all the children in our midst?
Lee J. Terán retired in 2017 as a clinical professor of law at St. Mary’s University School of Law and as director of the Immigration & Human Rights clinic. Robert Brischetto, Ph.D., was former executive director of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Research Institute and a sociology professor at Trinity University. The research for this article was conducted in preparation for a conference, “Holding Up the Mirror,” slated for Nov. 15-17 at Our Lady of the Lake University.