The Holes in Trump's Immigration Policy and His Warped Conception of Borders

At a time when images of children separated from their parents in cages are shocking the world, Trump's recent juxtaposition of the US with migrant camps is all the more problematic because it evokes a powerful imagery that panders to fear and xenophobia.

The Donald Trump administration’s abhorrent anti-immigration policy that is causing thousands of children to be separated and detained away from their parents is garnering global outrage. A total of 1,995 children have been separated from their parents who are facing criminal prosecution for unlawfully crossing the border. The United Nations and even First Lady Melania Trump have spoken out against this practice. 

American citizens are demanding answers from their senators. They are also donating thousands of dollars to support organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Hollywood celebrities are vocalising their demand for a more humane approach.

There is no doubt that President Trump’s zero-tolerance approach to immigration, which has come down hard on illegal border crossings, is cold-blooded, a gross violation of human rights, and unbecoming of a global leader like the US.

People hold signs at a protest against plans to deport Central American asylum seekers in Los Angeles on May 17, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

However, we need to move beyond outrage and humanitarianism to understand the deeper issues that are laced in the narrative that frames recent debates on borders, politics and immigration in the US. Narratives, especially those of political leadership, are not benign but powerful. They are not disconnected from society, but play an instrumental role in shaping perspectives of the way society views itself and others. Narratives are perpetuated and repeated, thereby feeding into the realm of the everyday and informing world views, perspectives, biases and opinions.

As a result, political discourse is an important site to understand the current contours of society. Moreover, it highlights the growing need to not only question but to also critically examine the substance of narratives that are reproduced by political leaders.

Let us take Trump’s recent press conference on Monday where he addressed the current border and immigration crisis. Trump, defiant of the current situation, shifted the attention to the larger issue of immigration policies and responded by calling them these “horrible laws” and blaming Democrats.

To be clear, there is no law that says children must be taken from their parents if they cross the border unlawfully. Instead, a “zero tolerance” policy created by the president in April and put into effect last month by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, allows no such exceptions. More so, in defending his position, President Trump went on to make three claims that are worth unpacking.

First, Trump stated: “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility, it won’t be… you look at what is happening in Europe you look at what is happening in other places, we cannot allow that to happen to the United States, not on my watch…”

What is specifically problematic with this claim is the juxtaposition of the US with migrant camps because it evokes a powerful imagery that panders to fear and xenophobia. Here, ‘migrant camp’ and ‘refugee holding facility’ are used as derogatory terms implying to some extent that the current numbers of those crossing the US-Mexico border is out of control. To emphasise this, Trump invoked Europe and the refugee crisis. While the issues of migration at the US-Mexico border and those of Europe are characteristically different, what Trump managed to suggest was a notion of a comparable crisis and chaos which may not be the case.

This leads to the second claim that Trump made, where he stated, “We need borders, we need security, we need safety, we have to take care of our people. You look at the death and destruction that’s been caused by people coming into this country without the process.”

There are two issues with this statement. Firstly, the correlation between the borders, security and safety and the supposed death and destruction caused by people entering the country. Trump made a similar association with migration and crime, drawing on the example of Germany where in a tweet he claimed, “crime in Germany is way up”.

Not only did this claim face flak from Berlin but more importantly was factually proven to be incorrect. Elmar Brok, a German MEP who is a close ally of Merkel, said: “First of all, Mr Trump is wrong. He has a greater problem with migration than Germany and the EU. There has been a 95% drop in numbers coming to the EU since October 2015. The leader of the free world should be bringing the world together not trying to divide it.”

The construction of the migrant as criminal, dangerous and murderous effectively upholds the stranger-danger syndrome as a necessary for divisive politics in any society. Trump, even during his election campaign, had routinely viewed migrants suspiciously and used terms such as ‘barbaric murders’ and ‘rapists’. Securing borders does not necessarily correlate to the crimes but only make it easier to the shift the suspicion to the outsider/foreigner. A study found that only 3% of migrants without a college degree are in jail, compared to 11% of the native population. The odds of being killed in a terrorist attack by an immigrant as low as 1 in 723 million, as per a study by the Cato Institute.

Historically speaking, the creation of the alien, foreigner or undesirable and the racialised ‘other’ traces its roots to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was the first act in US immigration history that was used to target a specific ethnic group. It is considered the cornerstone of a racialised and hierarchical immigration policy that institutionalised the gate-keeping ideology of US immigration laws.

Thereafter, the Immigration Act of 1924 was used to create quotas to protect a racially-defined notion of who could enter the US. Even though the US is considered a melting pot of cultures and a land of immigrants and opportunities; different groups of immigrants have faced varying effects of racialised immigration policies over time.

A view of inside the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Centre in Rio Grande City, Texas, on June 17, 2018. Credit: CBP/Handout via Reuters

Furthermore, the apprehension of illegal border crossers and undocumented migrants at the US border is not new. Under former president Barack Obama, for instance, illegal border crossers also faced prosecution. However, under Deferred Arrests for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), exemptions were made for those travelling with children. But what is particularly telling of current times is the touch of Trump, whereby it is not the numbers of those crossing that is causing a crisis but the ways in which these borders crossers are treated.

Finally, Trump affirmed, “Just remember a country without borders is not a country at all.”

What is interesting to note in this statement is Trump’s conception of borders. While the relationship between sovereignty and territorial borders is the foundational premise for the nation-state owing to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1664, what is necessary to highlight is the false assumption that immigration is a threat to the borders. Borders are a foundational aspect of defining a nation-state, however, borders are not hermetic, nor are they territorial air-tight containers that are fixed. Borders are inherently porous, it is in their nature to be crossed, transgressed, and even subverted. Hence the notion of being sealed or having the ability to be is sealed suggests a conception of border that is disconnected from the geographical and contextual nature of borders on the ground.

In other words, the crossing of borders, both legally and illegally, does not necessarily threaten the existence of any nation but is a mere function of being a nation. All nation-states across the world deal with the issue of illegal border crossings. However, the extent of the criminalisation of illegal border crossings, their treatment of asylum-seekers, and the violence perpetuated by nation-states in their neighbourhoods that cause this migration varies and need to also be considered. Finally, is important to also reiterate that migrations are often forced, a 2011 Gallop Survey found that found that if the world’s borders were open, only a meagre 14% of the population would move.

Prithvi Hirani was recently awarded a PhD in International Politics from Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Her thesis is titled ‘The Border, City, Diaspora: The Physical and Imagined Borders of South Asia’.