Family Separation and the Caravan: Trump's History with Immigration

In Trump’s latest phase of his self declared war against illegal immigration, he and his administration announced late last month that they were in the process of drafting a new executive order to revoke the constitutionally protected right to birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship is a constitutionally afforded right granted by the 14th Amendment that guarantees immediate citizenship to all persons born in the United States to immigrant or non citizen parents. This means that regardless of where your parents were born, or whether your parents are citizens, as long as you are born on American soil, you are a citizen. This right was incorporated into the Constitution by the 14th amendment as a way to immediately grant citizenship to former slaves after the Civil War. It is important to make the distinction that the citizenship of children born to American citizens is separate from the rights extended by birthright citizenship and the 14th Amendment.

The matter of birthright fell under Trump’s radar due to its common use to protect the citizenship of the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. As the New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported, in an interview with Axios the president said, “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits… It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.” This is a blatant lie by the president. This isn’t a uniquely American idea; nearly 30 countries on the western hemisphere, including Canada and Mexico, have birthright citizenship protected. As for the president’s outcry at granting citizenship to people born in the United States, he is wrong, it is not ridiculous. For a nation of immigrants it makes practical sense, if someone is born in this country, they are a citizen. A child of an immigrant, no matter how their parents may have entered our country, have only ever known the United States as home. We cannot deny the full protection of the Constitution, and withhold the absolute guarantee to the rights it affords, from people born and raised on United States soil. For the president to suggest otherwise is xenophobic at best. Even those born to undocumented immigrants should have the protection of citizenship. What Trump suggests is that children born here should be beholden to their parents’ crimes, children who have not crossed the border illegally, children who have committed no crimes of their own, should have their rights stripped away from them.

Now it’s pretty obvious that Trump can’t do this. No amount of executive orders can overrule the Constitution. Despite the president’s best efforts, the checks and balances built into our country’s foundation still exist and still hold true. Paul Ryan even spoke out against the president’s desire to do away with birthright citizenship via executive order, saying in no uncertain terms, “you cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order.” In typical Trump fashion, the president responded to the former speaker’s statements by tweeting out, “Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about! Our new Republican Majority will work on this, Closing the Immigration Loopholes and Securing our Border!”

It doesn’t take a political analyst to be able to see Trump’s true intentions behind his thinly veiled anti-immigrant and anti-birthright citizenship rhetoric. With these statements being made weeks before the midterms it’s obvious that the president is trying to drum up support for his base and energise his core group of supporters. The president has been using immigrants as scapegoats for the country’s problems since the 2016 elections. He has been capitalising off of fear and anti-immigrant sentiment which has taken hold in some segments of the population (whether it be anxiety over job loss, terrorism, or MS13), and used it to score political points with no regard for how divisive, polarizing, and dangerous it can be.

We have already been shown the destructive power this dangerous rhetoric can have. Early last year, the Trump administration enacted a “zero tolerance” policy, through executive order, which detained all people caught crossing the southern border illegally. The new policy even extended to those who crossed the border to seek asylum in America. As stipulated in the order, families caught crossing the border were detained and separated until trial, placing large numbers of children, ranging from 0 to 17 years old, in detention centers. As NPR’s Calima Domonoske and Richard Gonzales reported, “White House officials have repeatedly acknowledged that under that policy, they separate all families who cross the border. Sessions has described it as deterrence.” Gonzales and Domonoske also go on to mention that “the policy was unique to the Trump administration. Previous administrations did not, as a general principle, separate all families crossing the U.S. border illegally.” Until the policy was overturned, thousands of children were separated from their parents. Even now many of those parents have yet to be reunited with their children. As reported by Marina Fang from the Huffington Post, as of September, 400 children that had been separated from their families at the border had still not been reunited with their parents, despite the Trump administration’s July deadline.

Words cannot describe how awful, disgusting, and completely un-American it is to rip children out of their parents arms and place them into what the Guardian described as “cages,” while their parents await trial, especially when something as serious as the separation of families is used as a deterrent. It only gets worse when you take into consideration that many of those first time offenders who were detained, were sentenced to time served so long as they plead guilty. Crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor for first time, nonviolent offenders, but the Trump administration has punished them by taking their kids, and putting them in a mismanaged, poorly run, detention program, that will leave lasting marks on these families in the form of mental trauma.

For many families crossing the border at this time, they do so to seek asylum in the United States. Asylum seekers petition foreign governments for protection and shelter from their home countries. If granted, asylum seekers in America may then reside within the nation and, when the time comes, work toward citizenship. Asylum is a way to protect refugees and those victims of political persecution from oppressive governments or violent and unstable countries. Many of the Latin American asylum seekers fleeing to America are running from their own oppressive home governments and the growing threat of cartels. For vast numbers of them, returning home is a death sentence. Those filing for asylum must do so within the United States after crossing into the country. Contrary to Republican representative Raul Labrador’s suggestion that asylum seekers apply at U.S. embassies in their home countries, one may only apply for asylum on U.S. soil or port of entry, not in a foreign country. According to American law and international treaty, those who enter the country illegally may still apply for asylum. Despite this, many petitioners were still victims of Trump’s brutal separation policy.

Trump’s sudden interest in birthright citizenship is just another part of his month long tirade on the impending “caravan.” Currently, a large group of Honduran migrants are traveling north, through Latin America and Mexico, to seek asylum in America. Despite the fact that these migrants are hardworking, peaceful families seeking protection, embodying the very people welcomed in Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, according to the president, they impose an immediate danger to the United States. In his rallies, the president has used words like “invasion” and “criminals” to describe the hundreds of families running from their lives and the thousands of people fleeing the immediate dangers of their former homes. It is incredibly troubling that Trump is trying to make these people villains in the eyes of the public, despite these people traveling peacefully and not committing any crimes. Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver put it best, “It’s not that they don’t want immigrants to come here because they are criminals, they are calling them criminals because they don’t want them to come here.”

As Trump flares up again with his “caravan” hysteria, it’s important to remember how far this administration has gone in the past. As reported by NPR’s John Burnett, Trump has already suggested putting the “zero tolerance” policy back into effect. Family separation is already one of the most defining moments of Trump’s presidency, and it has the potential to be so much worse, especially when over five thousand United States troops are being deployed on our southern border to meet the caravan. Whatever happens next, the country, and the world is watching.