The issue of undocumented immigrants reaching our southwestern border is extraordinarily complex, the solutions elusive. Yet, we must not forget that America is a vast and amazing quilt of people. Pause and take notice of the array of faces, different in color and heritage and customs, all mirroring America’s commitment to e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It’s a remarkable experiment, resulting in a remarkable country.
The current immigration problem is ours to solve, made manifest by the 11 million to 12 million undocumented residents. A path to citizenship can be crafted, if Congress and the executive branch had the political will. To allow people to live in the shadows, perpetually in limbo, is morally reprehensible. And yet it continues.
But then, the tone regarding immigrants coming to our southern border was set with the first speech delivered by Trump announcing his candidacy while describing Mexicans crossing into America as rapists and criminals. It was a cynical moment wherein a stereotype of “the other” was created only to be used again and again (MS-13).
In truth, the profile of those coming to our border is vastly different from that portrayed by Trump and his aides. Many arrive from countries in Central America called the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Recently we have seen their images; many are women with children in hand and infants in arms. What we cannot see is the depths of their despair as they face an unrelenting uncertainty regarding their future. Their journey is unimaginable, sustained only by the fragile hope of America.
The countries they have left, according to Relief Web, are some of the most violent in the world, where 95 percent of all murders are committed with impunity, where extortion is commonplace and failure to pay can be life-threatening. These are, in essence, failed states ruled by street gangs, thugs and drug cartels, where most residents believe the police are corrupt and cannot or will not protect them.
The most vulnerable are women and children, adrift and overwhelmed. And so they travel north and find a way, across one or two countries, arriving at America’s border seeking refuge and asylum and thus creating a conundrum for policy-makers, a Gordian knot which cannot simply be cleaved. But that is exactly what the Trump administration has attempted to do with what it calls a “zero tolerance policy,” a term of art that sounds purposeful and disciplined but is instead a cliché that ignores the profound complexity of the problem.
Zero tolerance, as explained by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, means that instead of treating an illegal border crossing as a misdemeanor it is criminalized and adults immediately jailed.
In early May of this year Sessions stated, “If you cross the border unlawfully then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you are smuggling a child, we will prosecute you and the child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over the border.”
Sessions is referring to children who have suffered not only the trauma of violence in their country of origin, but have endured a journey that is deeply stressful and uncertain, where predators lie in wait, where their mothers are exposed to assault and rape. To put in place a policy that would compound their most fundamental distress is unconscionable. It has been reported that there are 11,000 children in government shelters, an increase of 22 percent as a result of zero tolerance. It has also been reported that over 1,500 children, separated from their incarcerated parents and placed with caregivers, cannot be accounted for. Some are younger than 4, others may have fallen into the hands of traffickers.
Clearly, to sort this out would require commitment and imagination. Solutions are nuanced and difficult. But they exist. Those who seek asylum can be vetted and while they wait, families kept together. If children are being used as part of a nefarious plan, that can be determined. We can do this.
Zero tolerance is an indefensible policy intended only as a deterrent, devoid of any humanity, and it is done in our name.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.