Targeted by Both the Law and the Lawless, Migrants Endure in Trump’s America

By: Bennett Siems
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The US Humanitarian Border Emergency, Part Three

The events of August 3-7, 2019 made clear that the current, widely publicized chaos at the US-Mexico border is just the most visible symptom of problems woven deeply into the fabric of US life and politics. 

On August 3, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people. Many of the victims were Latinos, including eight Mexican citizens. Law enforcement officials believe that alleged shooter Patrick Crusius also posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on 8chan. Crusius has been charged with murder and may also face domestic terrorism charges.

Just four days later in Mississippi, ICE officials took almost 700 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America into custody. The raid of multiple poultry processing plants was the largest single-state immigration law enforcement action in US history. Occurring on the first day of school, it left many children parentless for hours or days.

The continuation of patterns established during the Bracero era

Previously, The Millennial Source looked at the central role of migrant labor in the growth of the US economy. By participating in the largest binational labor exchange program in world history, Mexican Bracero workers made critical contributions to the US agricultural boom of the 1950s.

However, throughout the 22-year run of the program, concerns raised by government officials, labor unions and ordinary citizens on both sides of the US-Mexico border remained unresolved. Many of these issues have resurfaced throughout the 55 years since the program ended. Multiple presidential administrations have attempted to address them, but none have successfully built the broad consensus it takes to make lasting changes to US policy.

Scapegoating of migrant workers as a cause of US economic woes

On the US side, many believed that the presence of immigrant and guest workers during the Bracero era suppressed the wages of US-born workers. This complaint remains common today, including among Trump Administration officials. However, economists have never found a clear link between the use of foreign-born workers and the decline of US blue collar worker wages.

Interestingly, a 2010 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights suggests that whatever negative impact the hiring of undocumented migrant workers has on US wages and employment opportunities, that impact is felt disproportionately by African American citizens. At that, the report challenges the “Great Replacement” narrative promoted by US white nationalists, which portrays immigration as a fundamental threat to the well-being of white Americans.


US aversion to punishing employers for illegal hiring

Mexico’s greatest concern during the Bracero era was that the program would serve as cover for the hiring of undocumented workers, who would then suffer abuse and exploitation. Mexican officials sought guarantees from their US counterparts that anyone who hired undocumented migrants instead of certified Bracero workers would be severely sanctioned. However, the US never gave such an assurance, and in fact enacted laws sheltering employers from prosecution

To this day, aggressive US immigration law enforcement efforts focus far more on migrant workers than on the companies that employ them. During the 12-month period from April 2018 through March 2019, over 110,000 undocumented immigrants were prosecuted in the US, while just 11 individual employers (and no companies) faced prosecution. As of now, charges have not been brought against any executives at workplaces recently raided by ICE in Mississippi.

Highlighting this discrepancy, in a highly controversial decision in December 2017, President Trump commuted the sentence of an executive convicted of illegally hiring 400 undocumented workers.

Many previous administrations have followed a similar pattern of targeting migrants while declining to prosecute employers. Only twice has the number of US employers criminally charged for illegally hiring migrant workers exceeded 20 in a year – in 2005 under President George W. Bush, and in 2009 under President Barack Obama.

The perpetual reluctance of US law enforcement to take action against employers suggests just how vital immigrant workers remain to the country. In the decades since the US officially sent home the last Braceros in 1964, the nation’s thirst for migrant labor has only grown, spreading across multiple industries.

The realities of US dependence on migrant laborers

Arguably, the full economic value of migrant labor in the US was not apparent until a 1965 effort to replace the Braceros with US-born young men failed in under a year. By that time, however, the combined opposition of labor unions, the Mexican government, and many US politicians made the enactment of a new guest worker agreement all but impossible.

Thus began an era of widespread unauthorized border crossing, illegal hiring practices and rapid growth of the US undocumented migrant population. As of 1969, around 500,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the country; that number rose to 3 million by 1980, and over 8 million by 2000. Since 2005, the US undocumented immigrant population has hovered around 11 million.

And while roughly half of undocumented workers in the US today are farm laborers in the tradition of the Braceros, the number of industries that employ these workers has steadily grown since the 1960s. The Pew Research Center reports that undocumented immigrants represent over 10% of the US workforce in the construction, support services, food processing, hospitality and textile/apparel industries, and over 20% of all individuals employed in private homes.

Many experts believe that several of these economic sectors would not survive in the US without undocumented immigrant workers. Yet in spite of all the statistics, harsh talk about border enforcement remains an effective campaign strategy for many Republican political candidates, even candidates from states that depend heavily on migrant labor. 

Politicians’ words often conflict with actions in their own businesses and homes. As the New York Times reports, over the past five decades, a number of US public officials have ultimately acknowledged the truth of allegations that they employed undocumented workers. The list includes prominent Republicans such as former US Senator and presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former California Governor Pete Wilson, but also Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and two of President Bill Clinton’s nominees for US Attorney General.

President Trump himself continues to unleash frequent social media tirades against illegal immigration, even as numerous credible reports surface about the Trump Organization and Trump Properties hiring undocumented workers.

The contradictions and hypocrisy persist in part because many US residents hold conflicting views on immigration. With his anti-immigration-themed 2016 presidential campaign, Trump claimed victory in the state of Mississippi by almost 18 percentage points. Yet rather than cheering the recent ICE enforcement operations, Mississippians have expressed concern about the effect of the raids on their communities, and have rushed to help children victimized by the detention of their parents.

The Reagan Amnesty of 1986 & a string of failed policies

Trump has built his political brand around references to President Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular US presidents of the 20th century. The 2016 Trump campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, was a thinly disguised reproduction of the “Let’s make America great again” tag that appeared on Reagan’s campaign posters and buttons in 1980.

It is therefore not surprising that Trump claims Reagan supported the sort of aggressive border enforcement that his own Administration seeks to implement. He has even cited Reagan as a source of inspiration for his obsession with building a border wall:

However, Reagan was never an advocate of border barriers as a major component of US immigration policy. Asked about undocumented crossings of the US-Mexico border, Reagan once said,

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.”

Reagan thus raised the possibility of instituting a new (and presumably more humane) Bracero program as a way to constructively manage immigration and border security. He would not be the last US president to do so. In the early 2000s, George W. Bush proposed a program that would have granted temporary legal US residency to over 200,000 Mexican laborers annually. However, strong resistance from within Bush’s own Republican party doomed the proposal.

Similarly, Obama supported a 2013 immigration bill that included a guest worker program. In an attempt to gain support from traditional opponents of such programs, the bill was drafted in consultation with the AFL-CIO, one of the most powerful US labor unions. The bill passed the Senate, but Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner refused to take it up. Hence, the proposal died in the US Congress and never reached the president’s desk.

Many current Democratic presidential candidates hoping to win their party’s nomination and oppose Donald Trump in 2020 also support some form of guest worker arrangement. Yet even if such a program were to address all the unsolved problems of the Bracero program and actually gain congressional approval, it would do little to help the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the US.

Reagan recognized this issue, and sought to remedy it by signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) into law in 1986. Often referred to as the “Reagan Amnesty”, the law granted legal residency status and the possibility of citizenship to most undocumented immigrants who had lived in the US continuously since 1982, as well as to certain undocumented agricultural workers.

While protecting almost 3 million undocumented migrants from deportation, IRCA also sought to reduce future unauthorized border crossings. However, the enforcement method emphasized in IRCA was not a wall, but an audit. The law introduced the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification form, which all US employers must still file for every worker they hire, and specified financial and criminal penalties for the hiring of undocumented workers.

Yet like previous US laws that ostensibly sanctioned companies for illegal hiring practices, IRCA had loopholes that employers could readily exploit. The act only outlawed the “knowing” hiring of undocumented workers, and did not require employers to verify the authenticity of worker documents. This omission fueled the rise of a black market for forged immigration documents, and gave employers an incentive to feign ignorance of their workers’ origins.

IRCA also failed to address the status of amnestied immigrants’ children born outside the US, raising the possibility of widespread family separations. Recognizing this issue, both Reagan and his successor, President George H.W. Bush, signed a series of executive orders granting legal residency to the children of immigrants who qualified for the amnesty.

Unfortunately, those executive orders had a loophole of their own: they applied only to minor children. The Millennial Source spoke with immigrants who turned 18 while their parents (some of whom had been Braceros) went through the process of gaining legal residency via IRCA. Several of them were forced to return to their countries of birth in the late 1980s, even though they had not lived in those countries since they were less than 10 years old.

During the 33 years since the enactment of IRCA, the phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” has been volleyed about the US political landscape endlessly. Various temporary amnesties affecting small numbers of undocumented immigrants have been enacted, usually paired with expansions of the Border Patrol, the building of various border barriers, and other measures described as enhanced border security. The laws come and go, but the decades-old issues endure.


The thorny problem of family separations

The executive orders issued by Reagan and George H.W. Bush after the enactment of IRCA highlight the difficulties that arise when separate rules apply to immigrant children and their parents. However, the US, like most countries, treats children and adults differently in almost all realms of its criminal justice system. The existence of two sets of rules for undocumented immigrants is almost inevitable.

One of the most important US legal decisions on the treatment of undocumented immigrant children came in 1997, in the form of an agreement known as the Flores Settlement. Resulting from a Supreme Court ruling and subsequent negotiations to resolve a case that had been litigated for 12 years, the settlement sets strict limits on how long undocumented migrant children may be detained, and under what conditions.

Source: Divided by Detention, a publication of the American Immigration Council

Key provisions of the settlement agreement dictate that children may not be held for long periods in Border Patrol, ICE, or any other jail-like detention facilities. Generally, judges have acted on this provision by imposing a 20-day limit on child detentions in such locations. After that time, children are to be placed in the care of a parent, other adult relative, appointed guardian, or licensed child-care facility.

In 2014, the Obama Administration sought to increase the long-term detention of undocumented immigrant families. The action was intended to slow a rising trend of Central American families fleeing to the US from their violence-afflicted home countries. However, US Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled in 2015 that the Flores Settlement applied to all children, even those in the company of their families.

The Judge Gee ruling essentially forced the Obama Administration to either release families from detention or start separating parents and children. At Obama’s direction, enforcement agencies adopted a policy of releasing families, pending later court hearings to determine the families’ immigration status.

It is important to note that in the US, being released from a detention facility does not necessarily mean being set free. A variety of methods, from the use of monitoring devices to assigning lawyers or case workers, can be employed to ensure compliance with future court dates. For example, many of those detained in the recent Mississippi ICE raids have now been released with ankle monitors.

Shortly after taking office, Trump moved to reverse the Obama-era policy, choosing instead to comply with the Flores Settlement and subsequent Judge Gee ruling by separating families. The policy has drawn outraged reactions from human rights organizations worldwide, and strong opposition within the US. Polls indicate that while 49% of Republicans consider family separations acceptable, 92% of Democrats and 68% of those with no party affiliation oppose them. Overall, about 65% of US citizens view a policy of separating families as unacceptable.

In response to ongoing public backlash, Trump signed an executive order ending family separations in June 2018. However, some news outlets claim that the administration has continued to exploit legal loopholes to separate migrant families in some circumstances.

More importantly, Trump’s legal team has begun a push to overturn the Flores Settlement, clearing the way for the indefinite detention of undocumented migrant families. The US Department of Homeland Security is already drafting new procedures for long-term family detention. However, the administration acknowledges that the policy shift will have to survive an expected long battle in US courts before it can be implemented.

All of these developments are closely watched from the Mexican side of the border. Migrants often depend on “people smugglers”, called coyotes in Mexican Spanish (after a species of wild canine found throughout North America), to help them cross into the US. Many of these coyotes in turn hire recruiters called taloneros to bring them business. Often, the taloneros seek out migrant families.

While there is a partisan divide over separating families at the border, the US public as a whole does not have much of a stomach for large-scale deportation of children. The Pew Research Center reports that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, and 74% of US residents overall, favor granting legal status to undocumented immigrant children who were brought to the US by adults.

Unfortunately, avoiding deporting children, while continuing to enforce immigration laws for adults, can result in permanent family separations across national boundaries. The American Psychological Association reports that in mixed-status immigrant communities, children protected from deportation endure traumatic fear from the threat of losing adult relatives. The study found that these children even enact ICE raids in their imaginative play.

Source: American Psychological Association

Migrant workers in the US today give more than they receive

At a campaign rally in 2016, Trump claimed that illegal immigration costs US taxpayers $113 billion per year. Since then, he has repeatedly asserted that the US government spends “billions and billions of dollars” every month because of illegal immigration, through the combined expenses of border enforcement, public school operating costs and public assistance programs used by migrants. The president has never presented evidence to support any of these assertions, however.

In reality, a strong majority of undocumented workers in the US pay not only federal, but also state and local taxes. However, they usually do so using false Social Security Numbers, which can be obtained from fellow workers, forged documents or expired work permits. As a result, for trust fund taxes like Social Security and Medicare tax, undocumented workers pay into the trust but never receive benefits in return.

During 2016 alone, undocumented immigrants contributed over $16 billion to these trust funds; their contributions to the Social Security trust fund have generated a $100 billion surplus over the last decade. Those numbers matter a great deal, given that many economists project that the Social Security fund is in danger of depletion within the next 15 years.

In short, in addition to contributing greatly to US economic growth, undocumented workers might actually provide a net gain for all levels of US government – and hence, for all US citizens.

How the historical threads merged into today’s border crisis

While the conflict between border security fears and US dependence on migrant labor has been ongoing for over a century, it is not the sole, and arguably not even the primary, cause of the current humanitarian emergency.

As The Millennial Source previously reported, recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of families and children fleeing to the US from violence-ravaged Central American countries. The best US attempts to reduce bloodshed in these refugees’ home countries have produced mixed results. Worse, many US policies since 1900 have actually escalated the violence.

The increase in the number of children and families arriving at the US southern border tests the skills and resources of agencies that are used to dealing primarily with male migrant workers. Yet even this challenge does not explain the level of suffering seen in the photos and videos of detention center cages.

Source: Nypost

It was only with the Trump Administration’s implementation of a zero-tolerance border enforcement policy, including forced family separations, that the present crisis began to take shape. A companion policy requiring asylum seekers to remain in detention while awaiting court hearings – even though government data shows that the measure is unnecessary – has contributed greatly to the squalor that detained migrants now endure.

Stephen Miller reportedly described the family separations as a “potent tool … for stopping migrants from flooding across the border.” But the flood did not exist. Contrary to Trump’s consistent description of border crossings as an “invasion” of the US, the rate of undocumented entry in the country remains well below the record levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s

Some of the Trump Administration’s words echo the xenophobia of US anti-immigrant laws of the 1920s, while some of the administration’s deeds have awakened memories of mass deportations like the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s and Operation Wetback in the 1950s. Partly as a result of these choices, the threads of the past have woven together into the humanitarian catastrophe of the present.

Today, tens of thousands of migrant workers suffer the cramped conditions of detention center cages side by side with refugees seeking asylum; children have endured similar hardships in separate facilities. However, a glimmer of hope for those in detention emerged on August 15, 2019, when a US Court of Appeals ruled that detained migrants, especially children, must be given adequate food, clean water, and hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes – which some of them have previously been denied.

The El Paso shooting and anti-immigrant rhetoric

On August 3, 2019, Patrick Crusius allegedly traveled 600 miles from a Dallas, Texas suburb to open fire at an El Paso Walmart with an assault rifle. Most of the victims were Hispanic, and all the available evidence indicates that this was the shooter’s intent. Authorities believe that Crusius was the author of an anti-immigrant manifesto posted on 8chan shortly before the attack; he also echoed many of the sentiments in that manifesto in his statements to police.

Like the social media posts of accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers and the manifesto written by Christchurch mosque shootings suspect Brenton Tarrant, the 8chan post decries immigration as an “invasion”. Also like Tarrant’s manifesto, the post identifies Donald Trump as a voice for anti-immigrant, white nationalist ideals.

Consistent with past patterns that The Millennial Source has previously reported, Trump has denied any possible connection between the El Paso shooter’s motives and his own rhetoric. However, his re-election campaign has used the word “invasion” to describe undocumented immigration to the US in over 2,000 Facebook ads so far in 2019. And at a rally in May, he turned an audience member’s suggestion of shooting undocumented immigrants into a joke:

On August 5, 2019, Trump made appropriately respectful remarks in the wake of the El Paso shooting and a subsequent shooting in Dayton, Ohio. In the scripted speech, he condemned hate and appealed for national unity.

However, while describing the shootings as “an attack upon our nation, and a crime against all humanity”, Trump never specifically addressed the targeting of Latino immigrants by the El Paso shooter. In fact, in the nearly 10-minute-long speech, he never used the word “immigrant” or “migrant” at all. Many El Paso residents objected to this omission, claiming that the speech left them feeling like they still had a “target on their back” for violent white nationalists.

The Mississippi ICE raids – punishing workers first again

Just two days after Trump’s televised address about the shootings, immigrant communities in another US state were targeted by the law itself. On August 7, ICE officers descended on multiple Mississippi food processing facilities. Trump had previously warned of impending massive immigration enforcement operations, but claimed that the raids would focus on individuals who had committed violent crimes.

Contrary to those claims, most of the nearly 700 undocumented workers taken into custody in the Mississippi raids had no history of criminal activity since entering the US. Many of those detained had children at school or in daycare when the raids occurred. Some of those children still have not been reunited with their parents.

As of the writing of this article, no charges have been filed against the Mississippi workplaces for their hiring practices. The old pattern of targeting workers while showing leniency toward employers appears to be continuing, now merging with the new practice of family separation.

Whether intended or coincidental, the confluence of events of August 3-7 has immigrant communities in Texas, Mississippi and across the US living with new levels of fear.

Epilogue: Trump takes aim at the “huddled masses”

In addition to taking a harsh stance against undocumented immigrants, the Trump Administration has long promised to take steps to significantly reduce legal immigration to the US. Less than one week after the Mississippi raids, the administration unveiled a new policy that overtly favors wealthy immigrants over those of limited means.

Called the “Public Charge Rule” by administration officials, the policy gives immigration officers broad power to deny continuing legal immigration status to those who have made significant use of public assistance programs while staying in the US.

When considering the impact of such a rule, it is important to remember that the US is the only highly developed country without universal healthcare. As a result, any person of limited means in the US is at high risk of depending on public assistance in the event of a significant illness or injury.

Critics of the policy have pointed out that the Public Charge Rule directly contradicts a message associated with one of the most iconic symbols of the US, along with the ideals the nation claims to represent. A bronze plaque on the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty bears Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”, which reads in part:

…Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The 1903 bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.  An exact replica of this plaque is now located in the Statue of Liberty Museum. NPS

When challenged about the conflict between the Public Charge Rule and the sentiment expressed on the plaque, acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli offered an impromptu revision of the poem: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”

In spite of all contrary evidence, the Trump Administration continues to push the narrative that the US loses by welcoming non-citizens into the country, at least unless the immigrants come from a privileged class. Trump’s stance contrasts starkly with the words of the former president whose slogan he borrowed. Shortly before leaving office, that former president explained his vision of the United States as a “shining city upon a hill”:

“[I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans … teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” —Ronald Reagan, January 11, 1989



Up Next: What is DACA, who are the “Dreamers”, and how do they fit into the US immigration debate?