The time for a paradigmatic shift in how Americans view immigrants and immigration is now

By Sarah Towle

There haven’t been many moments of joy in the U.S. immigration space these past four years. But March brought celebration to the borderlands as we witnessed the good guys — and gals — prevail over the evil villain, Hollywood-style — if only for a moment.

That’s when we saw men, women, and children crossing the border to cheers and tears of joy with the Biden administration’s rollback of Trump’s illegal and insanely inhumane Migrant “Protection” Protocols (MPP), which didn’t protect anyone at all. From January 2019, MPP trapped roughly 70,000 of the world’s most vulnerable people, including 16,000 children, in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.

It is right that we should celebrate their liberty from a policy that criminalized asylum and slammed U.S. doors shut on people seeking refuge. We must elevate their resolve to enter the U.S. legally and with dignity as we recognize their international right to migrate.

But we must not let the celebrations blind us to the obvious: Our immigration system is broken and cruel. Trump was enabled in turning the cruelty up to 11 by an infrastructure he inherited. It must be reengineered before another madman is allowed to hack American ideals to that extent again.

But fixing it demands that we examine — then toss into the ash heap of history — the myths on which our archaic, even barbaric, immigration apparatus rests.

The racist and harmful rhetoric that immigrants were a health threat  did not start with the coronavirus pandemic. From 1917 and for the next 40 years, Mexicans crossing the Santa Fe Bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso were forced to strip naked and suffer being sprayed down with chemical agents while their clothes were fumigated. The government experimented with several products over the years, including kerosene, sodium cyanide, cyanogen, sulfuric acid, and gasoline.

Zyklon B, later used to exterminate Jews in the gas chambers of the Nazi Holocaust, was the chemical of choice at the makeshift border laundromat.

The Trump Administration’s xenophobia and racist abuse of  Title 42 of the U.S. Code continues this dangerous legacy. It permits U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to exclude all immigrants to the southern border on the grounds they may be carrying COVID-19.

Biden has yet to rescind the order, though doctors from the U.S. Center for Disease Control state there is no evidence that T-42 protects public health.

Since Trump invoked T-42 in March 2020, over 500,000 souls have been expelled without due process under U.S. law, while 10 million others have crossed the southern without proof of testing. Indeed, some would say it’s the border crossers who are taking the greater risk. The City of Brownsville, Texas, just across the border from Matamoros, has reported a 6.3% COVID-19 positivity rate among migrants released from MPP. The same rate for Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, is 13.8%.

Abbott and Trump will have you believe that Biden’s kinder, gentler immigration agenda is “pulling” people to the U.S.. The pull-factor trope serves to distract the American public from seeing the push factors that uproot people every day — many of which were 100% made in the U.S.A.

Folks don’t run to the U.S. because one president is perceived as humane any more than they stay away because another is deliberately, demonstratively cruel. True, men were once pulled north with the seasons in search of work. They were even invited when cheap labor was needed in U.S. fields. But as the National Immigration Forum clearly documents, everything changed in the last decade or so.

Today, migrants are pushed to the U.S. by factors resulting from a century of U.S. foreign policy decisions that prioritized profits over people, and corporations over communities. They run to escape the persecution and corruption of dirty war military officers turned drug lords. They flee gang and domestic violence as well as climate disasters, like back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota. They flee war.

MPP may have been a Trump creation, but the exploitative and costly for-profit immigrant detention and deportation machine was not.

A tax-payer-funded system that shackles people in five-point restraints and feeds off their misery has for too long put money into the accounts of publicly traded companies with the complicity of both political parties. And all for the “crime” of asking for safe haven.

History has proven, time and again, that immigrants are a net positive. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documented in 2019 the myriad ways in which immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy and society. They tend to be strivers, not public charges, supporting families both in their new home as well as their old. They work hard and pay taxes, often doing the jobs that native-born Americans avoid. Pre-pandemic, they represented 36% of all farming, fishing, and forestry workers; 36% of building and grounds and maintenance laborers; 27% of hotel and hospitality employees; and 21% of home health care aides.

The children of immigrants are largely upwardly-mobile, attaining more education and working in higher-paying occupations than their parents. Aged between 18 and 64, they constitute 78% of the working population, compared with just 59% of the U.S.-born, meaning they overwhelmingly support today’s baby boomers — some of the same people agitating to lock them out — through the Social Security fund.

Finally, “there are no handouts for asylum seekers,” states Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First in a recent interview with Al Jazeera’s The Stream. They can’t even apply for a work permit until six months after they’ve filed for asylum. They are not supported by the government, but by sponsors, usually family.

The U.S. should be  the land of welcome, a beacon on the hill, a place of refuge for those yearning to be free. The sad reality is that this has only ever been true for the ‘right’ kind of immigrant. For Trump and his heartless version of the GOP, the people seeking safety at our southern borders  are not the right kind.

Sadly, it’s not the only time the U.S. government has been so blatantly exclusionary.

The first general immigration law ever enacted by Congress was in 1882. Calling it the Chinese Exclusion Act, lawmakers back then didn’t even try to hide their racism with clever words.

That’s also when Congress started funding a force to patrol the country’s land borders. Made official in 1924 and dubbed the U.S. Border Patrol, the original mandate — to exclude based on race — evolved by the turn of the 20th century to include Mexicans at a time when white European immigrants were welcomed.

These are the roots from which all agencies now comprising the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have sprung. Like the statues of Confederate generals, these institutions are monuments to structural racism. They should be torn down.

With MPP over, we must now call on President Biden to rescind Title 42, the modern manifestation of the “dirty immigrant” myth. We must demand that he dismantle the for-profit immigrant detention and deportation machine, which dehumanizes innocents, including children, caging them under government agencies with historic — and contemporary — alliances with white supremacy.

The crisis at the U.S. southern border isn’t immigration. Rather, it lies in the harmful historic myths that hold the American body politic hostage. The time for a paradigmatic shift in how Americans view immigrants and immigration is long overdue. We must unlearn the myths that bind us to an inhumane past and Build Back Better with immigration policies better aligned with 21st-century values and realities. 


Sarah Towle is an educator, historian, soon-to-be podcaster, and author of the forthcoming book, The First Solution: Tales of Humanity from the Manufactured U.S. Border Crisis, which aims to demystify, scrutinize, and humanize the U.S. immigration system by elevating the tales of those caught up in it.


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