Columnist Razvan Sibii: Will we gun down migrants at the border? Part 1

By RAZVAN SIBII

Published: 09-19-2023 1:47 PM

Donald Trump didn’t back down often when he was president. There were very few instances when the American people — and, most importantly, his conservative constituency — were so appalled at his egregious deeds or utterances that he actually felt the pressure and reversed himself.

One of the most notorious such occurrences was the “family separation” debacle of 2018 under which thousands of children were forcefully taken away from their parents with whom they had crossed the border illegally.

Illegal entry into the U.S. is a federal misdemeanor and few Americans would make the case that those who commit misdemeanors should be punished by having their children taken from them. But that’s exactly what happened in 2018, and the reason was only half attributable to the sheer meanness of Trump’s general orientation toward immigrants; the other half was owed to a series of apparently reasonable policies that inexorably led to inhumanity.

When Trump became president he declared that his administration would henceforth prosecute all undocumented immigrants as criminals, rather than prioritize those who were dangerous. This was the famed “zero tolerance” policy he had been promising. Millions of Americans had voted for him fully knowing that he intended to implement this ruthless policy, and they generally let him do it once he came into office.

What neither Trump nor his voters seemed to understand initially is that criminally prosecuting this particular population — families with children crossing the border without authorization — would quite logically lead to horrific scenes of children crying for their parents as they were forcibly taken away by men in uniforms.

American regulations do not allow authorities to keep innocent children in prison for a long time. So when you decide to treat misdemeanor offenders as criminals and you put them in prison, and many of those people are accompanied by their children, you will by necessity find yourself separating families over and over again.

Those scenes outraged so many people that Trump had to end the “zero tolerance” policy in June 2018. By then thousands of children had been separated from their parents, and it took years for many families to be reunited. All that trauma, remember, for committing a federal misdemeanor akin to smoking marijuana.

Problem is, this unfortunate sequence of events can easily repeat itself, even in the absence of a Trump-caliber immigration-unfriendly president. Because our immigration laws and policies are outdated and inadequate, it won’t take actual evil intent to visit serious state violence on already vulnerable migrants.

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What happens if, a few years from now, the planet’s rapidly deteriorating climate forces hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes and head north toward the Mexico-United States border? America’s definition of “refugee” does not include people who have run away from floods, fires, tornadoes, heat waves, desertification and the like, so these individuals and families would have no chance of being legally allowed into the U.S.

They would be aware of that fact but, being desperate, they would try to cross the border anyway. That would accelerate the (already acute) militarization of the border, with more surveillance, more walls, fences and rolls of barbed wire, more drones and more armed forces being sent to guard the border. The dangerous “invasion” rhetoric would ratchet up, too. (I wrote about this last year: “Undocumented immigrants are not ‘invading’ the U.S.”: https://tinyurl.com/3wxhx8m4).

When walking over the border becomes harder and harder, desperate migrants look to exploit one of the few advantages they possess: their numbers. Rushing the barbed wire fences along with hundreds of other people, hoping to be the one that manages to slip away from the outnumbered and overwhelmed border guards, is a tactic that can work (and has worked, elsewhere around the world).

And when it does work, the backlash is easily predictable: The border guards, the managers they answer to, the politicians those managers answer to, and the American people those politicians answer to, all demand action. Faced with hundreds of migrants surging over walls and running toward them with the strength of desperation, the border guards, already trained to think like soldiers, will do what soldiers do when the “enemy” comes barreling toward them: they will shoot — first tear gas and rubber bullets and then eventually live ammunition.

American border guards shooting unarmed migrants of all ages. An apocalyptic image that has every chance of coming to life simply because reality doesn’t care about our reasons for refusing to yank our immigration strategy out of the 20th century.

My column next month will continue to make the case that America’s paralysis when it comes to immigration reform has put her on course to face a huge moral crisis that will make Trump’s family separation crisis look puny by comparison. I will put some flesh on the bones of this argument by sketching out the dimensions of the “climate refugees” phenomenon, as well as those of the border militarization phenomenon.

And I will show that this dystopian future is already here — in dribs and drabs at the Mexico-U.S. border and in more considerable proportions at other rich nation/poor nation borders such as Saudi Arabia-Yemen and the Spanish enclaves in North Africa.

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 razvan@umass.edu.

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