Columnist Razvan Sibii: Immigration myths: Part 2 — The illegality of border crossing


Published: 03-11-2023 11:24 AM


When Trump kicked off his presidential campaign in 2015 by talking about how Mexico is “sending” us immigrants who are cold-blooded criminals, I shook my head and thought, “Wow, he went straight to the oldest trick in the populist book: ‘The bad guys are invading us!’ This is not good...” But I didn’t really think that a political campaign centered on such nakedly hateful speech aimed at a group of people who are so visibly vulnerable would get much traction in a country where most people have a decent familiarity with the phenomenon of immigration.

But Trump saw something I didn’t see: a critical mass of Americans who were willing to believe that America is being conquered by an enemy more akin to apocalyptic zombies than to Ellis Island newcomers. It’s not that I underestimated the power of words to shape reality. But, to me, Trump’s leap from the relatively mild “border control” conservative talking points to the “Mexico is sending criminals” call to arms seemed so radical, so detached from reality, and so obviously dangerous, that I doubted anyone but the far right would seriously endorse such a dark vision. I now know better.

More than seven years later (!), the public debate on immigration remains deeply poisoned, to the extent that even the most basic facts about who is crossing the border, why they’re doing it, and what they’re doing once they’re here seem to have trouble breaking through the haze of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Last month, I started a series of columns dealing with the myths plaguing our current understanding of immigration. On the basis of more than 20 interviews with immigrant rights advocates, I first wrote ( about the unbelievable inefficiency of the system by which the U.S. authorities adjudicate asylum claims.

On top of that inadequacy, Trump brought decades of creeping anti-immigrant extremism to their logical conclusion: the “zero tolerance” policy his administration implemented in May 2018 whereby all adults who crossed the border without authorization were detained and prosecuted. When this predictably led to the separation of families, the public outcry was so big that Trump was forced to downgrade his policy to “a little bit of tolerance, but not much.” Many utterly harmless undocumented immigrants continued to be prosecuted as if they had committed serious crimes.

But if they crossed the border without the permission of the authorities, didn’t they technically commit a crime? Why should they get away with it? Seven years after Trump spoke of immigrants who “are bringing crime,” even this discussion, which should be a pretty simple one, is hopelessly mired in myths.

I find that many people are shocked to learn that crossing the border without authorization is a federal misdemeanor, akin to smoking marijuana or committing copyright infringement. No wonder then that many “law-abiding Americans” agreed with Trump that undocumented immigrants should be thrown in prison as if they’d committed a serious crime rather than the minor offense they were actually guilty of.

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Until Trump, both parties at least paid lip service to the idea that undocumented immigrants are not bad people just because some of them crossed the border without authorization. (About half of all undocumented immigrants came into the U.S. legally and overstayed their visa, an infraction that doesn’t even rise to the level of a misdemeanor).

Both Democrats and Republicans generally refrained from demonizing immigrants because 1) they knew they’d be lying and I have to think that many saw that as an immoral stance, and 2) they were familiar with, and cared about, what the law actually says.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the U.S. is bound by, asks states to “not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened [...], enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

In other words, it is perfectly understandable for a refugee to not stick around while their asylum request is being processed by a notoriously slow and underfunded bureaucracy. You are more likely to end up living in America if, when you ask for legal protection, you are already on American territory rather than in a refugee camp somewhere else. (As it is, about a million and a half asylum seekers are currently waiting for an asylum hearing on American territory). It wasn’t the refugees who set up the law like this.

If you do not have a close relative who is already a legal resident or cannot find an employer willing to jump through many hoops to bring you to the U.S., your visa application can wait for, no exaggeration, decades before it’s even considered. How is that a reasonable choice for someone who is running from imminent violence? This is precisely why the Refugee Convention asked countries not to punish people who cross the border without authorization and then present themselves to an immigration official — as many people are doing these days at America’s southern border.

I don’t know what it will take to pull the public discourse on immigration back to a more reasonable place after all these years of intense and shameless disinformation. Remembering some basic facts about immigrants and refugees is, I think, a necessary start.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at