How America's anti-immigrant hysteria just hit an unprecedented new low

By way of a harsh (and previously rare) new deportation tactic, the government is putting people in real danger

Published January 5, 2016 10:57AM (EST)

  (AP/Andrew Harnik)
(AP/Andrew Harnik)

In the wake of the armed takeover of an Oregon national wildlife refuge, liberals have mused over whether the federal response would be different if the protesters had a different racial identity. Matt Bruenig correctly identifies this counter-factual parlor game as self-serving and unprovable. It’s also unnecessary, because we know that law enforcement treats whites and non-whites differently, and you don’t need a hot take hypothetical about militia groups to understand it.

You only need to talk to the family of Ana Lizet Mejia.

She is among the first Central American migrants to be forcibly removed from their homes by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. In a rare instance in American history, agents came directly to Mejia’s doorstep in Norcross, Georgia, using a mis-marked warrant to raid the home. They eventually tracked down Mejia, who was wearing an ankle monitor and had been attending regular court hearings.

The strategy of home raids to break up hundreds of migrant families was leaked just before Christmas, and now the initial operations have begun. Donald Trump may be taking credit for the idea, but he didn’t authorize the confiscation of people from their homes and families; Barack Obama did. It’s a small-scale operation, in the hundreds, seemingly designed to scare would-be immigrants from seeing America as a safe refuge. But it upends the Administration’s stated deportation goals.

The Department of Homeland Security, which confirmed the raids, defended them as consistent with November 2014 guidelines that focused priorities for deportation on “individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.” Migrants who have received a final order of removal from an immigration judge fit that profile, DHS said on Sunday.

But you can make the argument that people like Ana Mejia deserve humanitarian protection. Gangs in Honduras killed Mejia’s brother, and she was personally threatened after reporting the death to local police. But the U.S. never offered her asylum, just shuttled her through a confusing and overburdened immigration system. Asylum cases are extremely difficult to prosecute on an individual basis, particularly for those without access to proper legal representation. Only one-quarter of “family units” like Mejia and her nine year-old son, who was also detained, have been able to find a lawyer, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Prosecutorial discretion was supposed to be the basis of the Obama Administration’s executive action on immigration, to deport “felons not families” and relieve those paying taxes and abiding by other laws from the fear of deportation. However, successive court rulings against the executive actions have prevented them from taking effect.

So now they are lumping in migrants escaping violence in Central America with “criminals” who threaten national security. Delve into this and you’ll hear a lot of bluster about how our immigration laws make no sense without enforcement of final deportation orders. And failing to deport those marked for removal could damage the Supreme Court case on immigration executive actions, the theory goes. But the question is not really whether to honor deportation orders but whether these particular migrants should have received them at all. After all, the United Nations has called this a refugee crisis, with women in particular facing some of the highest murder rates in the world. Should people fleeing violence be sent back to face it?

Officials like Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson justify the raids by pointing to a district court decision ordering the release of families in immigration detention centers because of their substandard, unsanitary conditions. The response to this, apparently, has been to return the same families to temporary holding centers before pushing them out of the country quickly. Already, advocates are deeming the holding facilities unsuitable for minors, who have been wrapped up in the raids.

We don’t have a lot of experience in America of immigration officials knocking on doors looking to deport people. Workplace raids are somewhat more commonplace, but not home raids. The fear this strikes in the hearts of even legal immigrants (“What if ICE knocks at your door?”) carries a cost for the country.

That cost does not only hit immigrants and their families. Just look to Europe to see the cascading effect of tighter border controls. The “Schengen agreement” guarantees passport-free passage across the European Union. But after Sweden imposed tighter restrictions on border crossings with Denmark – presumably to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees – Denmark responded with restrictions on its border with Germany.

This puts the Schengen agreement in peril, and increases wait times on normal passage across borders, regardless of your national origin. That hurts tourists, commuters who routinely cross national borders, and especially commercial transactions. And the United States is not isolated from a backlash against its immigration and visa policies, as anyone who has traveled to South America and had to pay hundreds of dollars in visa fees (because the same is asked of South American citizens traveling to the U.S.) can attest.

There’s obviously also a political angle here, as home raids which pull apart immigrant families, even those who could face death if returned to their countries, prove the Trumpian argument about the possibility of mass deportations. How can anyone attack the immorality and callousness of such policies when they’re already being carried out, albeit at a smaller scale?

What is needed is blanket recognition of official persecution in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, a culture of violence that this country actually nurtured with gang activity that flowed south. We have no problem meddling in Central America’s internal affairs historically. Now, when our policies cause an inhospitable environment for tens of thousands of refugees, our response shouldn’t be to ignore those conditions and deliver those families back to high-risk communities out of concern for our “rule of law.” It’s bad enough that we have not welcomed enough migrant victims of instability created in part by our wars in the Middle East. We shouldn’t compound the failure by raiding the homes of those escaping the same desperation in our own hemisphere.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Deportation Immigration Immigration Reform