Trump declared that a wall would be built on the border between the US and Mexico. His campaign rhetoric was relentlessly anti-immigrant, beginning with his famously false claim that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. As president, all of his immigration policy has been pointed at our southern border as all of Trump’s supporters fervently defend and believe in barring “illegal aliens” from coming into America. But building a wall, besides being far from feasible and entirely unnecessary, won’t stop unauthorized immigration. In fact, 40% of unauthorized immigration to America happens in the air. Even for those arriving here via legal visas, many people simply don’t leave when they expire. So why so much focus on our southern border? Because anti-immigration rhetoric and policy has everything to do with the country from which a person is immigrating. This much we know.
But here are some statistics you may not know. In 2014, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) found that 42% of unauthorized immigration consisted of visa overstays. CMS also found that every year since 2007, there were half a million more overstays than illegal entries. You can’t build a wall in the air, but why are there few policies proposed to monitor it? Because of where the overstays are from: Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK make up four of those top six countries. This we know: It’s racism, it’s deep-rooted prejudices, that factor in who Americans view as deserving of asylum and life within its borders.
In a speech in Boston in 1869, Frederick Douglass spoke against policies barring Chinese immigrants from entering America. He declared that there are “such things in the world as human rights“; that they “rest upon conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible.” One of them, he declared, is “the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike“:
…It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.
The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever-increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization…
But America has never viewed immigrants from countries of color as it sees immigrants from predominantly white countries. It’s evident in the language we use, in the policies we have used to shape this nation since its inception, in the way America treated, and may still treat, families at our southern border.
Painting brown and Black immigrants as criminals allows us to justify inhumane actions against them. We use language to degrade them as illegal, as alien, as non-human, as a way to justify treating them as undeserving of human rights. This is how they can justify separating families. This is how we take babies from the arms of their mothers.
The question is how long racism will continue to govern American policies. Well before the election of Trump, America was still working to live up to its founding myths and historical promise. Now the gap is broader and deeper between the America it claims to be and the America that really is. We have so much work to do.
America is not separate from the world. It is part of the world and has long played a unique role in creating immigrants and refugees, and then turning its back on those people when they seek help. This includes brown and Black people. So what, I have to ask, will finally stop America from viewing brown and Black immigrants as a problem, and the people themselves as criminals undeserving of opportunity, as less human than Caucasian immigrants? Black and brown people and their descendants, even those who settled here generations and generations ago, are still asked where they’re from, as if to doubt their roots, their right to be here. White people and their descendants aren’t asked where they’re from. Their right to be here is presumed. No one doubts their roots.
I don’t know whether America will ever live up to its founding myths: the land of the free; the home of the brave; a place of equality. I do know this; we have a chance to begin closing that gap by repairing a fraction of the damage done. Trump and America has a duty to humanity, and bringing equality to America’s immigration policy is a place to start restoring what is broken. Our policies should reflect the humanity that exists in this world, and not uphold the racist policies under which this country was founded. It’s past time for America to live up to its name.