Net Zero Immigration

The Trump administration has done everything possible to prevent migrants from claiming asylum. Yesterday's tear gas was the inevitable result.

Hello, and welcome to Where Do We Go From Here. The first edition of this newsletter was supposed to be about Chris Collins, a corrupt US congressman who was recently re-elected alongside several other officials who are under federal and state indictment. But, like a lot of days in the last two years that plan went up in the air last night when our government took yet another previously unthinkable action in its war on the poor and vulnerable of the world. I was going to write about Collins because he proves a central premise to my work: many things are bad, many people are dumb, and many bad, dumb people are in power. That remains more true now than in previous years, although in this at-times very bad, dumb country, it’s always been a problem.

Now I’ll just have to write about the many bad, dumb people whose actions are directly responsible for what happened at the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana last night. It’s important that we not immediately move on from what is a distressing turning point in our handling of migrants at border.

Where Do We Go From Here began as a book I started writing three years ago. Back then I was doing a lot of traveling around the Midwest and the South, covering murders and police shootings and filing dispatches for The Daily Beast and other publications from whatever town I’d shown up in at a very bad moment. It continues with my current reporting and travels, which have included much writing from the border, my never-ending investigation into Collins, and more watchdog work on folks in Washington. This newsletter will include dispatches on those subjects, background on stories I’ve written or am currently writing and, of course, news. There’s an old saying in journalism that reporters know twice as much as they’re able to write. This newsletter will be home to that other half, the stuff that doesn’t make the stories.

First up, Net Zero Immigration.

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It has been clear for years now that the primary policy goal of the Trump administration—and the only one it has had any success in enacting—has been what I call Net Zero Immigration. But it’s not just that the president, most Republicans in Congress who are silently complicit or expressly supportive, and people in the White House like Stephen Miller want no immigrants coming into the country. Let us be very clear in our understanding that they want no immigrants of color coming into the country. So, when you see images of agents at the border firing tear gas toward migrants, your understanding of why that happened must begin and end with a tacit admission that the administration is constantly working toward a goal of Net Zero Immigration of people of color.

To continue answering the question of why yesterday’s events occurred, it’s also important to know what the Trump administration has been doing for more than a year now at ports of entry. Not only has every single immigration policy and staffing decision from the highest ranks of the departments of Justice and Homeland Security down to agents at the border been about achieving Net Zero Immigration, those actions have also been implemented to make the asylum process as difficult as possible. This is all in addition to zero tolerance prosecutions, which are the legal mechanism for reducing asylum claims and, thus, migrants being released into the US on bond while those claims are processed (something I’ll likely get to later this week). First, there are the physical means of deterring or preventing migrants from claiming asylum.

The Paso Del Norte bridge separating Juarez from El Paso is the main crossing point between the two cities. On any given day, thousands of people and cars pass on the bridge. People live in Juarez and work in El Paso and vice versa. People from Juarez travel to El Paso to buy goods. People from El Paso go to Juarez to do the same. (A reporter I know there says Juarez is a great place to get good, cheap dental work done.) The walking path from Juarez into El Paso looks like this:

That image is from early November, when more than 100 migrants—about half of them children— were camped out on Paso Del Norte waiting for the chance to apply for asylum. This was shortly after Trump sent troops to the border. Any discussion of migrants and the border cannot be had without addressing the processing of asylum claims, but that is clearly not a priority for this administration.

If you don’t want migrants storming the border, then increase the ability of DHS agents to process asylum claims at ports of entry. It’s that simple.

Instead, Trump sent troops, who are sitting around doing nothing.

Immigration hard-liners will say the migrants who rushed the border at San Ysidro yesterday are breaking the law, thus justifying the use of force in preventing them from entering the US. What they will not take into account are the conditions those migrants face in Tijuana in elsewhere. There, residents of the city stormed a migrant shelter two weeks back, screaming for the “pigs” to go back to their home countries. The mayor of the city has famously been seen wearing a “Make Tijuana Great Again.” These actions are in line with what migrants at Paso Del Norte told me around Election Day.

“The Mexicans don’t want us here. They call us names and tell us to get out of their country,” one man said.

A few feet in front of him, two Border Patrol agents stood at the dividing line between Mexico and the US. The man I spoke to had waited eight days for his chance to apply for asylum, and now he was at the front of the line. Behind him I counted 117 others, many of them children.

That’s how the Trump administration has chosen to handle a slight uptick in migrants at Paso Del Norte looking to claim asylum. So it should be no surprise that, when faced with a large increase in the form of the caravans that have been traveling from the Northern Triangle countries and elsewhere, it has chosen to meet them with force instead of properly staffing ports of entry to handle the influx.

In Tijuana, where shelters are already at capacity, migrants have been living in makeshift camps, waiting in line for more than an hour for food from aid organizations, and god only knows how long to use the bathroom. No one should be surprised that desperation set in and some migrants chose to rush the border. What would you do under such conditions?

That’s how the Trump administration has physically prevented migrants from entering the US to claim asylum. Legally, they’ve been finding ways to do the same for more than a year. In fact, even longer than that.

Zero tolerance prosecutions—which came to national attention in June during the family separation crisis—have actually been occurring since 2005 under a DOJ program called Operation Streamline. Now, they continue, simply with the absence of the government separating families. (In concert with the Department of Defense, DHS is preparing to hold migrant families at newly-constructed facilities at military bases, including Fort Bliss in El Paso.)

Most of the prosecutions currently taking place under zero tolerance wouldn’t have occurred before Trump took office, US attorneys, federal public defenders and immigration lawyers have told me. Many of those prosecuted under zero tolerance are first-time, non-violent border crossers—think mothers from rural regions of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who have turned themselves in with their children. Under zero tolerance they’re arrested and held by the US Marshals or ICE—whoever has room in their holding cells, really—then taken into federal court with at least a dozen or so other migrants, where almost all of them plead guilty to a misdemeanor illegal entry charge.

This crime will likely preclude them from ever obtaining a work visa, much less US citizenship. But faced with a court system they barely understand and overworked lawyers who can only do so much to explain how much they’re fucking themselves over with the plea deal, they choose to cop to the crime.

The American Immigration Council notes that many migrants go so far as to dismiss their asylum claims in order to make a deal with government prosecutors.

“...individuals and advocacy groups continue to report instances of DHS officials denying individuals their right to pursue asylum or protection-based relief and pressuring them to waive their fear-based claims in exchange for plea agreements.”

During the family separation crisis in June, attorneys and federal public defenders told me migrants were not only pleading guilty to illegal entry but dismissing their asylum claims in a desperate attempt to get their children back. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the next logical step in this twisted game of forcing impossible decisions on mostly poor, uneducated migrants when he proposed a rule prohibiting anyone who enters illegally to make an asylum claim. That rule is now being fought in the courts.

To recap:

Step 1: Make it difficult to even apply for asylum at ports of entry by not staffing them properly/sending troops instead for a pre-Election Day publicity push

Step 2: Prosecute all illegal entries regardless of circumstances and try to get migrants to dismiss asylum claims

Step 3: Make it illegal for them to even claim asylum if they enter illegally

The final step, which has been taken up by the Mexican government, is to pressure migrants to go home by not providing them basic aid. So they sit in makeshift camps in Tijuana and on the streets of Juarez—in both places and elsewhere under threat from average citizens and predatory cartels—waiting for the chance to do what is their legal right under international law: apply for asylum.