What's Missing From The Immigration Conversation Right Now

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Bustle’s “What’s Missing” is a column that gives space to important insights being left out of the conversation around the most talked-about news of the day. In this op-ed, immigration reporter Tina Vasquez explores what's missing from the discussions about Trump, Democrats, and immigration.

As an immigration reporter, I’ve written about asylum-seeking children placed in solitary confinement with their parents, migrants whose newborns were taken by state agencies, the gross mistreatment of mentally ill immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, and immigrants who have been raped or who have died in federal immigration custody. The way many white Americans respond to these stories are variations of “Trump has got to go” or “This is not the country that I know.”

These responses are upsetting and frustrating. President Donald Trump is simply taking advantage of a system that has been built, piece by piece, over many years and by many different administrations. Voting him out won’t stop the family separations that occur every time a parent is deported. It won’t put an end to in-custody deaths. It’s imperative that American citizens who are angered by the Trump administration’s atrocities at the border develop a deeper understanding of the immigration system’s inherent violence, dehumanization, and racism. These are systemic issues, not simply a Trumpian aberration.

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When I discuss previous administrations' failings on immigration and the ways Democrats in particular helped build the detention and deportation systems now being wielded by Trump, the most common objection I hear is that this “what about-ism” is “not helpful” and “distracts from Trump.” I vehemently disagree. We need to reckon with our past, including the presidency of former President Barack Obama, who militarized the border like never before, expanded the detention system (including family detention), forced asylum seekers into “camps” with the express purpose of quickly deporting them, and executed ICE raids.

We must also reckon with former President Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act; former President George W. Bush’s formation of ICE and every subsequent president’s continued funding of it; the slow, steady expansion of the detention system; and initiatives like Operation Streamline, which funnels migrants in southwest border districts into criminal proceedings that condense their initial appearance, arraignment, plea, and sentencing into a single hearing. Those hearings take little as 25 seconds per defendant, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. These are just some of the fundamental building blocks in the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement arsenal.

Prerna Lal, a queer, formerly undocumented immigrant who is now an immigration attorney, tells me it’s crucial to expand our understanding of immigration beyond the Trump administration because the policies many Americans are just opening their eyes to didn't originate with Republicans, or the current wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant ideology.

“Up until very recently, Democrats were just as much about raids and border enforcement. They carried out 3 million deportations,” Lal says. “Both parties have built this deportation apparatus. The Democrats are a party that’s had to be pushed to ‘do good.’ We need to know this history because this is not a ‘Trump problem.’ These problems existed since we first made naturalization laws in 1790, and these problems will continue to exist beyond Trump.”

Lal, who is writing a book on immigration and activism, co-created Dream Activist, an unprecedented online network of immigrant youth that carried out nationwide actions. Lal has been steeped in this work. Even so, their insights and experiences navigating the immigration system continue to be dismissed by Americans who want to personally decide what history they agree with and exactly whose deportations were cruel. In Lal’s experience, this is par for the course.

“It’s uncomfortable for people to hear that there is almost nothing Trump is doing that Obama didn’t do. It’s an escalation of things that were already in place,” Lal says. “Honestly, when we were fighting for the DREAM Act and DACA, one of the immigrant rights movements biggest fights were against liberals and Democrats. People who weren’t affected by [immigration] policies wanted to dictate how we should respond and what we should say.”

I’m worried we won’t be able to continue mobilizing people to speak out against these injustices and inhumane conditions because they think voting Trump out fixes everything.

Like Lal, Tony Choi’s activism has spanned a decade. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient “came out of the shadows” as undocumented and queer in 2011. He said many of his undocumented peers “dropped off” from organizing after DACA, which the media has generally framed as something Obama gave to undocumented young people. In reality, the immigration benefit was hard-won by young undocumented activists. After years of fighting, many were too burned out to continue with activism and, understandably, chose to use their newly available work permits to simply live their lives.

Choi says he’s “still in the fight,” though he is increasingly worried that Americans who recently mobilized around immigration will drop out of the fight for immigrant rights if a Democrat is elected president in 2020.

“What if the next person elected says that their hands are tied? That people are continuing to migrate and seek asylum, so we have to detain them because it’s the humanitarian thing to do?" Choi asks. "If a Democrat uses a different framing, which is what Obama did, we’re back at square one because the base isn’t angry anymore. I’m worried we won’t be able to continue mobilizing people to speak out against these injustices and inhumane conditions because they think voting Trump out fixes everything.”

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Both Lal and Choi say they are heartened by the number of Americans who have mobilized around immigration. Lal says that, until recently, the onus to “fix the immigration system” has entirely been on immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people of color. But with that mobilization comes the responsibility to reckon with the past. This means understanding our history so we don’t repeat it, or fall for the same messaging that ultimately only throws immigrant communities under the bus.

“The cruelties have been cranking up and cranking up, first as deterrents and now as policies to harm and punish immigrants,” Choi says, noting that there’s something missing from the conversations Americans are having about Trump and immigration. “At the end of the day, the fundamental question Americans need to ask themselves is this: Do these injustices only matter now because of who is doing them?”