In President Trump’s State of the Union Address, he claimed that there is “an urgent national crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border. His statement at the State of the Union was in line with his previous narrative. Last month, Trump visited Texas following an address from the Oval Office in which he made similar claims about the state of the border. The government was shut down for the longest period ever over border wall funding.
Reporting from El Paso, TX, I had the opportunity to assess the impact of immigration on border communities and compare Trump’s statements to their reality.
In a recent tweet following Trump’s trip to the border, he called out former presidents for not creating a barrier and allowing drugs and criminals to get into the U.S.
…The Steel Barrier, or Wall, should have been built by previous administrations long ago. They never got it done – I will. Without it, our Country cannot be safe. Criminals, Gangs, Human Traffickers, Drugs & so much other big trouble can easily pour in. It can be stopped cold!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2019
Other presidents have attempted to build some kind of barrier along the border and many have succeeded, but their attempts have also exemplified the challenges that come with the project. The border that exists today is made up of a combination of fencing (some are simple chain link fences and others are thick metal rods) and natural barriers. In addition to the physical barriers, border patrol is parked along the border and patrolling from helicopters.
In a fact check on Trump’s Oval Office address, NPR discredited the claim that without a wall, drugs will continue to pour into our country. The drugs that come to the U.S. from Mexico are mostly entering the country legally through Ports of Entry, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). NPR found that, “drug mafias have thoroughly infiltrated Mexican export and trucking companies” because NAFTA allows for goods to flow freely with few security checks at the border.
Trump has, on many occasions, referred to those coming to the U.S. from Mexico as criminals. Right-wing media has also rallied around the idea of criminals threatening U.S. security at the Southern Border.
However, Associate Professor of Sociology at The George Washington University, Hiromi Ishizawa said, “when immigration issues are reported inaccurately to induce fear, then it could contribute to sustaining myths about immigrants, such as immigrants are more likely to commit crime is a myth.”
A recent study shows that areas with growing immigrant populations often experience shrinking crime rates. Many border cities have some of the lowest crime rates in the country. A New York Times article claimed that a drop in crime rates is due to the fact that “immigrant communities bring economic and cultural revitalization to the neighborhoods they join.”
After returning from the border, Trump tweeted a quote from his Oval Office Address about the border.
The Trump portrait of an unsustainable Border Crisis is dead on. “In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with Criminal Records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes & 4000 violent killings.” America’s Southern….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2019
Trump is right in saying that 266,000 people were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the last two years, but the offenses he outlined are misleading. ICE reports annual arrests, but does not break down those arrests by offense. While the total number is accurate, it does not make a distinction between immigration-related criminal records and other criminal activity. A criminal status is given to anyone who has tried to cross the border before, even if they were only charged with a misdemeanor.
Being charged with a misdemeanor of illegally entering the country is generally taken care of through a civil process. If an individual returns to the U.S. after being deported they will be charged with unlawful re-entry and be tried in a federal court.
What is rarely reported on in the media is the way that immigrants are treated in the federal courts. In the courtroom, men and women stand before a judge with chains wrapped around their ankles, waists and wrists. They wear headphones so they can understand the judges’ remarks through a translator. They have twenty minutes to plead their case before they are sentenced to jail time and deportation.
They aren’t able to reach for a tissue when they get emotional talking about the reasons they tried to enter the U.S.. Some don’t even get the respect of being called by their name.
The media rarely discusses the abuse that immigrants in the U.S. receive from U.S. officials and citizens. It is not a talking point for the administration which downplays the severity of the issue.
After entering the U.S., immigrants are placed in holding cells in U.S. detention centers. These holding cells, nicknamed las hieleras, or “the freezers,” often hold women and children for up to multiple days at a time. All the detainees are given small metallic emergency blankets, which provide little warmth. Sickness is common in these cold and overcrowded facilities.
In addition to overcrowded and barely livable conditions in some facilities, sexual abuse is another problem in detention centers.
The ACLU published an article in November in which ICE officials claimed that they were not responsible for their staff’s sexual assault of individuals in their detention centers.
In the case of E.D. v. Sharkey, the detainee was threatened by her assailant with possible deportation as other officials in the detention center stood by and laughed.
Through a FOIA request, The Intercept gained access to a sample of sexual abuse complaints brought to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. In the sample, there were 1,224 complaints and 43 investigations between 2010 and 2017. In earlier responses during the FOIA request, “officials with the DHS Office of Inspector General indicated that the office received some 33,000 complaints between 2010 and 2016 alleging a wide range of abuses in immigration detention.”
The Intercept concluded that “the sheer number of complaints… suggest that sexual assault and harassment in immigration detention are not only widespread but systemic, and enabled by an agency that regularly fails to hold itself accountable.”
The number of sexual abuse allegations against ICE officials is rarely reported on by mainstream media outlets.
Undocumented immigrants experience a strong sense of fear of being deported after arriving in the U.S. Undocumented families sometimes live in homes without electricity, heat or running water. They are often far away from emergency services and fear going to the doctor when something goes wrong.
Immigrants may also experience financial abuse from their landowners or employers. Their landowners can raise the price of rent without any reason or sympathy, leaving their renters with no other choice but to find the money. Their employers can use them for work and then not pay them. According to the Guardian: “Evidence is mounting that undocumented immigrants are increasingly wary of reporting crimes or testifying in court, for fear that they could be detained and deported, according to law enforcement officials and advocates.”
In addition to the lack of media awareness of abuses by U.S. immigration systems and citizens, the reason that immigrants come to this country aren’t widely reported on.
“The structural reasons why people migrate are missing from the media,” said Ishizawa. “One of the often assumed reasons for migration is poverty, but it is important to understand why people in some countries are in poverty and the role the US has played.”
Immigration is a very polarizing topic in the U.S. and parties and news organizations tend to get caught up in the politics of it. But when it comes down to it, the issue is about human beings, most of whom are just looking for a better life for their families.
Ishizawa puts it simply: “The media should not dehumanize immigrants.”