Brown Skin Isn’t a Crime
by Ted Miller
(originally published July 2018 in Tumbleweird)
The “zero tolerance” immigration policy of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions is less about the rule of law and all about furthering the divisive politics of hate and discrimination. Central Americans desperately seeking asylum in the United States under international law are instead put into for-profit prisons and detention centers while children, including nursing infants, have been forcibly separated from their parents, sent hundreds of miles away with no apparent plan to reunite them with their families.
To justify this treatment and stoke the fires of racial intolerance, Trump and Sessions use dehumanizing terms like “animals” and “illegals” while describing immigrants as “infesting the country,” “pouring in by the millions,” and being a part of murderous gangs. Trump would like nothing better than to abolish the constitutional guarantees of due process for asylum seekers. “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Mr. Trump tweeted on June 24th. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
"Hopefully, people will get the message and not cross the border unlawfully," Sessions said on June 19th, claiming the policy would act as a deterrent.
But the use of such cruel treatment of immigrants seeking safety is misguided and its claims of effectiveness as a deterrent are dubious at best. The reasons cited for this inhumane treatment are not based in facts. The rate of undocumented immigrants is at its lowest in four decades, crime committed by immigrants is significantly less than for native-born citizens, immigrants actually improve the economy without increasing unemployment or lowering wages (no, they aren’t “taking our jobs”), and immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in public assistance benefits.
Asylum seekers are not criminals. At most, they are guilty of a misdemeanor if they cross the border illegally. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even those entering a country illegally have a right for protection from violence and oppression in their home country.
There is a concept in our legal system that the punishment should fit the crime, derived from the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” It would certainly seem that ripping a nursing baby from her mother’s arms for the misdemeanor of illegal entry into the United States is cruelty disproportionate to the offense.
This spring, Nazario, a 32-year-old family man, fled Guatemala to escape continued death threats from a local gang, bringing his 5-year-old daughter Filemona with him across Mexico. On May 16th, he crossed the border east of San Diego intending to seek asylum and safety. Border agents apprehended him and told him he was being taken to jail. As Filemona tried desperately to cling to her father, crying and scared, she was forcibly taken away with no explanation. Filemona ended up over a thousand miles away in New York while Nazario waited for weeks in a San Diego jail. After several weeks, not knowing where his daughter had been taken and realizing the United States was not a safe place that would protect him, Nazario pleaded guilty to illegal entry in the hopes that he would be reunited with his daughter.
Nazario was deported to Guatemala on June 20th, but Filemona is still in custody somewhere in the United States. Nazario and his wife (whom he left behind when he fled) have no idea if they will ever see their daughter again.
And this is only one of thousands of similar cases. Parents separated from their children, not knowing when or if they will ever see each other again. After they are ripped from their families, children as young as toddlers are being prosecuted as unaccompanied aliens. These stories are truly heartbreaking.
Terrorizing asylum seekers, separating families, using “the law” to justify the immoral and inhumane treatment of other human beings is NOT making the United States a safer place. It could be argued that it is in fact doing the opposite. So then why is this happening?
Sessions and Trump, along with their supporters, are using this manufactured crisis of illegal immigration as a political tool to further their populist stronghold on the country. It costs billions of taxpayer dollars (with much of the profit going to private prisons and detention centers), undermines the rule of law, diminishes our international standing, and creates hate and division among the American people.
Like so many of this administration’s policies, demonizing “the other” is a tool they use to divide us while enacting laws and policies that benefit the wealthy and those in power. We’ve seen these divisive tactics used against the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen it in the misogynistic reaction to the #metoo movement, we’ve seen it in the gun control debate, we’ve seen it in the Muslim travel ban, and we see it in this misguided attempt to keep brown people from Central America out of the United States.
We the people must continue to stand together against tyranny and fascist ideas. We must continue to march, continue to speak out, and most importantly, we must use the power of our vote while we still can to put people in office who will work for all of us, citizens and non-citizens alike, with equality, justice, and fairness.