Trump administration’s hypocritical immigration policies demand public outrage

Trump administration’s hypocritical immigration policies demand public outrage
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The Trump administration’s approach to immigration reached new levels of ironic cruelty this month. Undocumented immigrants are being systematically stripped of their most basic rights.  However, the White House seems to recognize that many Central Americans are fleeing their home countries for quite legitimate reasons.

Seemingly, the defining characteristic of this round of anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric is the dehumanization of illegal immigrants. Ultimately such xenophobia diminishes our collective humanity if not checked by popular outrage.

On the one hand, the Trump administration is asking Americans to accept that immigrants are not deserving of protection. This week, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations Sessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Trump rebukes FBI chief Wray over inspector general's Russia inquiry MORE inserted himself above the immigration courts, something he is empowered to do as Attorney General, and issued a particularly devastating decision for migrants escaping violence in their home countries. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions decided.


For immigrants who fled their home country because they were born into the wrong neighborhood, saw something they should not have, or had loved ones killed by gangs, Sessions’ decision could well be a death sentence if they are deported.

Sessions’ decision is but continuation of the Trump administration’s general hostility to the idea that immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States because of the danger they face in their home country.

Last year, despite ample evidence of continuing poor economic and security conditions in El Salvador and Honduras, the administration chose to phase out Temporary Protected Status for many Hondurans and Salvadorans living in the United States. Media attention to the humanitarian crisis presented by the waves of unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States in 2014 and 2015 helped shed light on the security situation in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  

The State department, for example, cautions Americans against visiting El Salvador because of violent crime in the country and the limited ability of the local authorities to respond. A perennial contender for the dubious honor of being the murder capital of the world, large areas of El Salvador are under gang control and immigrants have reasonable fears about what awaits them if forced to return.

Forced family separation at the border represents merely the most heart-breaking example of the administration’s callous disregard for basic demands of human decency when it comes to immigrants. Perhaps because family separation is so horrific — ripping children, many young enough that they cannot fully understand what is happening, out of the arms of their parents — Trump administration officials have forced to justify the policy.

But chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE’s argument that the policy is not cruel because the children “will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever” is reflective of the administration’s larger project of denying the humanity of immigrants, including the basic rights and needs of parents and of children.

The argument that the administration is engaged in a project of dehumanizing immigrants does not need to rely on analogies or particular policies for support, Trump has made the implicit explicit. In what the New York Times called a “rant,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE said of MS-13 gang members, “These aren’t people, these are animals.”

As noted by numerous commentators, such language, even when targeted at gang members, is dangerously dehumanizing. But what began as a “rant” became far more chilling when Trump got a crowd of his supporters to agree with him and then became official government policy when “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13” was published on the White House website. 

Given that Trump’s anti-immigrant vitriol helped him win the election, it is not a huge stretch to argue, as some have, that Trump’s language was meant to include all immigrants. But even if the National Review was right to read this comment narrowly, that it “only” dehumanized gang members, that makes the administration’s policies towards those fleeing gang-related violence even more ironic and cruel.

The Trump administration finds itself arguing out of both sides of its mouth, simultaneously demonizing immigrant gang members and denying protection to their victims. Last year, before a trip to El Salvador focused on MS-13, Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the gangs “leave misery, devastation and death in their wake. They threaten entire governments.” Yet, this week the same person decided that as a matter of policy immigrants fleeing gang violence will not generally qualify for asylum.

The Trump administration is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want the public to see immigrants as gang members that present an existential threat to the United States that demands a tough response and a border wall. At the same time, they want the public to ignore the moral imperative presented by families forced to migrate because of that same violence.

The Trump administration’s hypocritical immigration policies demand public outrage. If the country responds to the administration’s cruel approach to immigration with a shrug or with resignation that all that can be done is wait for Trump to be voted out of office, we will have failed to the most basic of moral imperatives: to recognize the shared humanity of others.

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.