‘Zero-tolerance’ policy doesn’t deter immigrants seeking safety
CHICAGO — In simpler times, the Republican standard bearer thought the humane way to deal with illegal immigration was to worry people into heading back to their home countries.
In 2012, Mitt Romney assured potential voters that no one wanted to round up unlawfully present immigrants and deport them. He instead wanted them to “self-deport,” and his policies would simply encourage people’s return trip.
That didn’t fly with anyone. So here we are, six years later, and we’ve seen video footage of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers stalking neighborhoods and Border Patrol agents asking people on buses and trains for their “papers.”
We’ve seen children torn from their parents and housed in cages. And we’ve heard reports of jailed parents, not knowing how or whether they’ll reunite with their children, either attempting or committing suicide.
Reports also abound of asylum requests being discouraged at the border and human rights abuses being inflicted on immigrants in detention centers.
And guess what? It doesn’t appear to have stopped immigrants from taking a one-in-a-million shot at the opportunity to be able to eat and live.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy “is not deterring asylum-seekers from improperly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
“The number of border-crossers, including children and families, declined from May to June, but the drop was no steeper than the usual seasonal variation: the hot summer months tend to see fewer migrants,” WOLA reported.
It is inconceivable to many Americans how any responsible parents could consider making the treacherous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border with their children.
And most of these skeptics don’t know that, even before traversing this border, migrants from Central America (who make up the largest portion of U.S. border crossers) have made an equally perilous jaunt into Mexico. That is a country in which immigrant advocates proclaim that the government’s treatment of unlawfully present immigrants is a national disgrace.
NPR recently reported that Mexico “has deported more than half a million Central Americans, including almost 82,000 last year, according to data from Mexico’s Interior Department. Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans annually than U.S. authorities have, in some years more than twice as many.”
It’s no wonder — the violence and lack of economic opportunity in those countries is incomprehensible to those familiar with the kind of grinding, but ultimately survivable, poverty in the U.S.
“El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala continue to have some of the highest homicide rates for countries not at war, and asylum seekers continue to flee extortion, gang violence or forced recruitment, domestic abuse, gender violence, or targeting for collaboration with police,” according to WOLA. “So far this year in Arizona, nearly 90 percent of Central American asylum-seekers are Guatemalan. A surprising number are fleeing the country’s rural highlands, where the violence is being generated by drug-trafficking groups who extort local businesses and are pushing people off of their lands, and operate with the acquiescence of corrupt government and security officials.”
There are also terrible unintended consequences of the warped incentives of the North American Free Trade Agreement. For example, millions of farmers have been forced to leave their farms, prompting them to come to the U.S. illegally to find jobs so they can send money home to feed their families. But for more than a decade, fallout from drug production, shipping and distribution has been the flashiest story in relation to violence in Mexico and Central America.
Yet, somehow, references to “bad hombres,” Latin American kingpins and their gangs are rarely discussed in the context of the simple economics of the drug situation: Americans have a high demand for illegal drugs while corrupt and opportunistic thugs in poor countries terrorize their own people to provide the supply.
We are complicit in the economic and human rights disasters that are causing migrants to flee their home countries — CNN just reported that the Trump administration was informed that ending the Temporary Protected Status for Central Americans would increase illegal immigration, but they ended it anyway. So let’s not be ignorant about whether the crush of desperate humans at the border will ever subside.
You can terrify whole communities, rip families apart and traumatize children for life. But until the alternatives in Central American countries and Mexico are better, people — especially parents — will make rational, if potentially deadly, decisions.
For the most desperate, possible separation or death at the U.S. border is the only alternative to certain torture, starvation or execution back home.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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Last week’s column was about Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., a respected gastroenterologist who wrote “Fiber Fueled,” which came out in 2020. Today’s column is the first in a series of columns based on this book.