When it comes to immigrants and refugees we really can do better


I have been spending a lot of time on immigration and refugee issues. I am doing that because I believe it is one of the defining issues of our time. All over the world there seems to be a sharp turn towards anti-immigrant and anti-refugees sentiments. I wonder why that is the case. I think it might be because there is a lot of misunderstanding about the issues. As comedian Jim Jefferies keeps saying, “I think we can do better.” Maybe we have something to learn from the comics.

The American Department of Homeland Security which is responsible for border security, claims it is not turning away asylum seekers and the only purpose of the metering process it has started recently is to ensure that the ports of entry facilities are not swamped. It is also true that the Border authorities are also facing an unprecedented rise in asylum requests. The total number of credible-fear referrals for interviews — or migrants seeking asylum — skyrocketed from about 5,000 a year in fiscal year 2008 to about 97,000 in 2018. At the same time, the number of total apprehensions along the Southwest border dropped in the same period, from 705,005 in 2008 to 396,579 last fiscal year, according to Homeland Security and Border Patrol statistics.” That is a lot of people. But Americans have handled more in the past. the numbers are not unprecedented.

However Trump’s policies are making things seriously worse and dangerous for asylum claimants. As Katie Waldman a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security (‘DHS’) said, “The bottom line is that we have a deeply flawed immigration system, smugglers and traffickers know the flaws well, and they seek to exploit these vulnerabilities in the law, as well as physical vulnerabilities to enter and remain in the country illegally.”

It is interesting that DHS border officials know there is problem and they know that their own policies are making things worse. This is what DHS’s own Inspector General found,  ““while the government encouraged all asylum seekers to come to ports of entry to make their asylum claims, CBP managed the flow of people who could enter at those ports of entry through metering, which may have led to additionalillegal border crossings.”Metering was intended to slow down asylum seekers and it has had the opposite effect. The thing everyone has to remember is that asylum seekers are desperate. Many believe they have not other choice to protect their families,

I am not obsessed with Trump either. He is part of a general movement to oppose immigrants and refugees and the one we hear most about here in Canada. His policies just like policies in many other countries, are designed to slow down asylum claims. He, like so many people around the world, think “their country is full.”

Reporters Jervis and Carranza reported as follows about the border procedures:

“Investigators interviewed one woman who said she was turned away three times by a border agent before deciding to take her chances with illegal entry, according to the report. Two other migrants told them they crossed over illegally after being turned away at the bridge.

A Border Patrol supervisor told the investigation team the sector sees an increase in illegal entries when migrants are metered at ports of entry. “While the stated intentions behind metering may be reasonable, the practice may have unintended consequences,” the report said.”

          Hector Silva, the pastor who runs the shelter, near the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, described the plight of asylum seekers this way,

 “Very few migrants are being allowed to cross over the nearby McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge…Those turned away from the bridge — either by border patrol agents or Mexican immigration officials — are susceptible to criminal gangs that roam the area….

The gangs have kidnapped migrants and held them for thousands of dollars in ransom, beat them up or swindled them out of money, Silva said. Instead of exposing themselves to those gangs, some migrants are looking into illegal crossings.

The entrance they had hoped for doesn’t present itself, so they risk other ways in: over the river, over mountains, with smugglers…it becomes very difficult for them. ”

Two of the asylum seekers inside the center checked their cell phones every day for news from their relatives Street gangs in their home towns made them pay a weekly “war tax” on their businesses left behind and threatened to kill family members back home if payments were not made. They left behind 2 daughters aged 9 and 17 because of the dangers of the journey. They had hoped to get them as soon as their claim for asylum was made. They had to make some very difficult decisions. What is very clear is that they have not been coming to the US just because they think it is a better place to live, as some critics have claimed. These are desperate people.

Another asylum seeker, Maria Alfaro, aged 51, from Honduras, said she was afraid to cross the international border because she had been warned about the lengthy backlog and because she did not want to be turned away and then snatched by the cartels at the border. As Jervis and Carranza reported,

“She was kidnapped in Chiapas, Mexico, during her journey to the U.S.-Mexico border last year, a harrowing ordeal she said she doesn’t want to go through again. She escaped after a shootout broke out between her captors and Mexican authorities. Afterwards, she headed toward Reynosa for U.S. protection.

“I came here to seek asylum,” Alfaro said. “But there’s no where to go.”

Migrants waiting for asylum across the U.S.-Mexican border expressed similar fears and complaints about their state of limbo. For many, waiting in line to request in asylum didn’t seem like the wisest long-term strategy. ”

As a result Trump’s policies cause the asylum seekers to cross the border without permission to avoid the predators at the border.

It is certainly true that Trump’s policies are forcing many asylum seekers to wait it out in Mexico notwithstanding the dangers. That is usually because of the cost. Smugglers can charge as much as $7,500 per person to help cross the border and many of them just can’t afford to pay. So they take their chances with the local criminal gangs instead. They are truly caught between the devil and deep blue sea.

Marlin Martinez has showed up to the camp every day for the past three weeks with her three children, ages 9 to 12, hoping to apply for asylum in the U.S. Each day, Mexican immigration officials have told her to come back the next day, she said.

Martinez, who was fleeing a violent ex-partner and street gangs in Honduras, said she will hire a smuggler to get them across, as soon as she raises enough money to pay them.

“We didn’t come here to violate any laws,” she said. “We came to seek asylum. It’s in God’s hands now.”

It is true that some claimants are paying smugglers to cross while others just can’t afford it so they stick it out in Mexico as long as they can. But the longer they wait the more dangerous it is. And we always have to remember that people fleeing a country on account of violence are lawfully allowed to enter the country and make their claims for asylum in the United States just as they are in Canada. That is not illegal. That is legally permitted.

As if all of that is not bad enough, some asylum seekers pay the money to smugglers who cheerfully take their money and then bolt without giving any help at all. The life of asylum seeker is not an easy one.

A lot of people in “host” countries like the US wonder why so many asylum seekers and immigrants come to the USA when it is obvious to them that they are just not welcome in the US.  It is not quite as clear and obvious to asylum seekers. First they are often fleeing severe violence, along the way they are constantly harassed and victimized by criminal gangs, and many people along the way give them false information. How rational would ourdecision making be under such circumstances?  As reporter Ed Lavandera said, “the people who recently arrived at the border were often directly threatened by gangs and as result believe that the onlything they can do is to drop everything and run north.” The people are desperate, not just for themselves but their families as well. Many of them are travelling with young children. Many of them have left relatives behind that might be attacked by the criminals in order to extort money from the asylum seekers.

As Lavandera reminded, “these are the people that Trump has painted as criminals, rapists, murderers, and “very bad hombres.”  Trump says that of course not because it is true. He really does not care about the truth. Trump says that to scare American voters so that they will turn to him as their savior. That is what populists and demagogues do. They try to scare people so they will turn to a strong man.  When you look at the millions of people in America who support him you have to conclude he pretty good at fear mongering.

Mary Bauer a lawyer who advocates for asylum seekers holds no punches in her criticism of the President and his followers. She has met many of them. Her organization has helped many of them. As she said,

“They are not the people that Trump describes. They are not murderers and rapists. The people we are seeing on the border are desperate people who are terrified. They want to present to the US authorities at border entry points. They would like to apply for asylum but cannot because of administration policies. The majority of undocumented people now in the US are coming through airports, people who are overstaying their Visas. All of the rhetoric from Trump about who those immigrants are and why they are coming and what they are seeking is just wrong. It’s just damned wrong! Immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes in the US”

When Donald Trump says he just wants people to come into the country legally he is not telling the truth (again). He is not allowing people to come and make asylum claims. His policies bar the way for people. He is actively trying to keep out asylum seekers. As Bauer said, “He (Trump) has tried to attack the system of legal administration at its root to make it unavailable for people to come here legally.” Added to that, when he says the country is full he is clearly saying he is opposed to all immigration.

I remember an odd argument I had with an elderly woman in the hot tub in Arizona.  I made some intemperate sarcastic remark about Trump’s proposed wall and she slid over to get right in front of me, pointed her finger up against my face, wagon it vigorously as she spoke. She said, she was not opposed to immigrants. She just did not want then to come in through the back door. She wanted them to come through the front door or not at all. That seems reasonable. At least it seems reasonable until you learn how difficult Americans have made it for people to come in through the front door. When the front door is barred, and people are desperate for survival, when wolves are circling the house keeping a close eye out for vulnerable people, and when their desperation is often partly caused by the owner of the house, it is hardly surprising that some people want to come in through the back door. Desperate circumstances create desperate people.

Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Michael Chertoff, former US Secretary of Homeland Security. He admitted that a barrier on the southern border was of little importance. It was a part of what is needed, but only a small part. Technology is what American border authorities can use more of, not walls. As Chertoff said, “It is certainly not worth shutting down the government for.” Chertoff added that the only intelligent way to deal with this problem is to let the experts say what tis needed to boost security. Bigger and better walls, let alone beautiful walls, are not what are needed. He pointed out as so many have pointed out, that drug dealers want volume and to do that they must use the entry points and transportation systems. The rational way to deal with too many refugees is to ease the pressure on them back home. We in the west, not just Americans either, should be investing in a return to the rule of law and should be helping to create economic opportunities back in their home countries where most of them want to stay so that they won’t want to come our countries to stay.

Walls? We really can do better.

Leave a Reply