United States

Immigrants as outlaws

Print edition : June 22, 2018

Central American migrants sleep outside the "El Chaparral" port of entry to U.S., in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on April 30. Photo: Guillermo Arias/Getty Images

Immigrant labour is central to the U.S. economy, but the law has always criminalised them. Now, Trump has made it stricter.

CLAUDIA PATRICIA GOMEZ GONZALEZ left her home in San Juan Ostauncalco in Guatemala three weeks before she stepped into Texas in the United States. Aged 19, Claudia Patricia had finished a degree in accountancy two years before but could not find work. She had arrived in the Texas town of Rio Bravo thinking that she had made it across the heavily fortified U.S. border and would soon be reunited with her boyfriend who was already in the U.S. But, at that moment, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent fired one round from his gun. It struck her. She died.

Marta Martinez, who lives in Rio Bravo, came out of her house when she heard the gunshot. She began to film the scene. She saw the young woman lying dead on the ground. You can hear Marta Martinez on her widely viewed video: “Why do you mistreat them? Why did you shoot the girl? You killed her. He killed the girl. She’s there. She’s dead. I saw you with gun, bro.”

At a news conference in Guatemala City in Guatemala, Claudia Patricia’s aunt, Dominga Vicente, said: “Don’t treat us like animals.”

The use of the word “animals” is deliberate. U.S. President Donald Trump has on several occasions used the word to refer to immigrants. In a press conference, he referred to members of the MS-13 gang as “animals”. Formed in Los Angeles (California), the MS-13 gang is made up of people mainly from El Salvador. When several of them were deported to El Salvador, even those born in the U.S., they took the gang with them. It took root in El Salvador and created major problems for that small country. It is certainly the case that MS-13 has been vicious in the drug war. Trump’s comments were specifically about the gang. But Democratic Party leaders, such as Senator Diane Feinstein, took Trump’s use of the word “animals” as emblematic of the harsh anti-immigrant regime that he has put in place.

During his election campaign, Trump made it very clear that one of the reasons for economic distress in the U.S. is the influx of immigrants. He pointed his finger not only at those who enter the U.S. without papers but also those who come on short-term work permits (such as those who come on H1-B visa to work in the technology sector). These migrants, Trump has said on several occasions, take away jobs from “Americans”. There is a veneer of racism in Trump’s theory. Most immigrants who enter the U.S., serious studies show, contribute to its economy. Jobs are hard to find for working-class Americans for a number of reasons. One of them, which is rarely discussed, is that investment in the U.S. domestic economy has shrunk (gross private domestic investment fell, for example, from an average of 16 per cent of the GDP before 2007 to an average of 11 per cent of the GDP after the financial crisis). There are many authors for the economic distress in the U.S. Rather than point a finger towards the banks or the class of financiers, politicians have found it much easier to blame immigrants.

U.S. immigration policy has long been a problem. The American economy relies upon an influx of workers, whether they go to work for a Silicon Valley firm or they go to work as janitors, whether they come on short-term work visas or they have no papers to begin with. Rather than come to terms with the centrality of immigration to its economy, U.S. politicians have, for many decades, turned the guns of the state against immigrants. One harsh indicator of this attitude is the 1996 Immigration Bill, which was pushed by the Republicans, signed by President Bill Clinton, and supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

That bipartisan Bill set in motion a policy that the only answer to migrants who are in the U.S. without papers is incarceration and deportation. Immigration, in other words, was seen solely through the lens of criminality. Migrants are criminals, and their deportation somehow, it was suggested, would open the door to unemployed Americans. The 1996 law made it harder for undocumented migrants to get papers, it made it impossible for the state to offer them amnesty and it made it imperative for government officials to treat migrants as criminals. That is not the attitude of Trump or of a border guard. It is the stance of the current immigration law in the U.S.

What is most difficult to digest about the immigration law is that it came in the era of “globalisation”. In 1994, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened borders to capital and goods. But not to labour. Cheap American corn crushed the Mexican corn industry, which was mainly an industry of small farmers. Many turned to growing marijuana as a substitute and others moved towards the U.S. for work. It was an impossible situation. But it was just at this time that the U.S. decided to raise its border, to build more of its wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to begin the harsh deportation policy towards migrants. Migrants were seen as felons, not as families.

Trump took office pledging to increase deportations. His harsh rhetoric, poor conditions in the U.S. economy and improvements in Mexico’s economy have slowed migration from Mexico. This has an impact on the numbers, since Mexico has been for decades the main source of migrants from its border into the U.S. (migrants from Central America and elsewhere are the other source). It is because of the lower numbers of migrants that Trump’s promises to be the harshest President on immigration has suffered. There were simply not the high numbers to deport.

That is why the record for the number of deportations remains with the Barack Obama administration, which not only deported large numbers of families but also separated parents from children. Large numbers of immigration detention centres were opened in Obama’s time. These centres held children and adults, people desperate to improve their situation but now treated as criminals. Pushed away from the countries of Central America by gang and political violence and by economies wracked by climate change, these migrants never got a chance in the much more affluent U.S. They were often arrested at the border and held in these centres for months on end. Many fail to even enter Mexico. They have been blocked at the Guatemala-Mexico border, where the U.S. and Mexico have a joint interdiction programme. Here, in camps, the Guatemalan and other Central American refugees languish. It is as if the U.S. border has moved south of Mexico to Guatemala.

Militarised border

Smaller numbers of migrants now confront a much more militarised border and a much more aggressive border force. It has long been the case that the U.S.-Mexico border itself resembles a concentration camp fence. Guards, armed as if in dangerous combat, patrol the fence for underfed migrants who are parched from the long journey northwards. Data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that use of armed force involving firearms dropped before 2017 but has risen again. Agents used their weapons more than twice as many times in 2018 as in 2017. Aggressive behaviour against migrants now seems to be given permission from the White House.

Trump wants to overhaul the immigration system. He believes that the system is “corrupt”. What he would like to do is to eliminate any judicial review of deportation. The armed police should catch migrants and simply drop them off at the border, he believes. “Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials? Where do these judges come from?” he said on Fox News. Such a policy would violate the U.S. Constitution as well as U.S. commitments to refugees and migrants on the basis of international law. Slowly, in the shadows, Trump has already begun to rewrite immigration law. He has refused to extend work permits to some migrants and has retained pregnant migrants in immigration detention centres, forced applicants for visas to hand in five years of social media, email and telephone records, and cracked down on high-skilled visas for foreign workers. These changes came in one week. There is a raft of other changes. It would take an entire book to enumerate them. The basic principle underlying these changes is to make the U.S. even more inhospitable to migrants than it has been. Visa applications have declined as arrests of undocumented migrants have increased.

Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez left her Maya-Mam community in Guatemala because she could not do anything with her degree in her country. “We’re poor,” her mother Lidia Gonzalez told Prensa Libre. “There are no jobs here. That’s why she travelled to the U.S. But they killed her. Immigration killed her.”

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