Home > Uncategorized > Immigration Misconceptions – posted 3/9/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/17/2019

Immigration Misconceptions – posted 3/9/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/17/2019

The lawyer and activist, Bryan Stevenson, has written that there is a narrative war going on about American politics and history. He cites the example of slavery and the Civil War. Stevenson says that the North won the Civil War but the South won the narrative war. He says that the South was able to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that racial equality was not necessary.

The end result was another 100 years of white supremacy, mass lynchings and segregation. There was never any real accountability until the Civil Rights movement.

I think current debate about immigration reflects a new incarnation of the same narrative war Stevenson wrote about. To one side, the United States faces an invasion of illegal immigrants. This is certainly the view of President Trump and his Republican allies.

In this view, Latin America is sending its criminal element here. As Trump famously said, “They’re bringing drugs, crime and are rapists”. Trump has consistently talked about vicious crimes and murders committed by illegal immigrants. Trump has tried to ramp up fear that undocumented immigrants will murder Americans.

Last October, when the the migrant caravans headed north toward the United States, Trump described caravan members as “stone cold criminals” and “Middle Easterners”. It was a big part of his fear-based pitch to voters in the 2018 mid-term elections.

It needs to be said that everything about this view is wrong. It does not make sense of the most basic facts. The pattern of who is immigrating to the United States has changed dramatically. There are fewer male migrants in their 20’s and 30’s and many more families, women and children making the trek to our Southern border. A very large proportion are asylum seekers.

In the three Latin American countries – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – the so-called Northern Triangle, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the quality of life. The enormous growth of criminal gangs has made life there much less secure and more dangerous. Violence is widespread in the region. These countries are located between the main producers of cocaine – Columbia, Peru and Bolivia – and the main seller, Mexico. The United States remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

To understand why life in Central America has become so hellish, the geography matters. The Northern Triangle is right in the middle of the drug market, with drugs making their way north to the United States.

While the story is complicated, we in the United States bear responsibility for the dire economic conditions in the region. The wars in Central America that we funded left a devastated economic landscape. Sad to say but the gangs in Latin America may represent the best employment opportunity for young people since there are few options. The average citizen of the Northern Triangle countries gets no protection from the drug traffickers who have been running wild.

As the writer, Roberto Saviano has written, the Honduran migrant caravan from last October was the largest flight from drug trafficking in history.

Migrant caravan members were actually crime victims – not perpetrators. People joined together in a caravan for protection from the gangs and drug traffickers in their home countries. The five countries in Latin America – El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico and Guatemala have the biggest organized crime problem in the world.

When some Americans complain about why immigrants cannot come to the United States legally, they misunderstand the situation faced by the Latin American immigrants. Latin Americans are not joining caravans and coming here just for the better opportunities represented by life in the United States. People are facing dire existential threats from criminal gangs who have made life in their home countries intolerable and impossibly dangerous.

The view that immigrants trying to escape drug traffickers and gangs are criminals is a complete misreading of what is actually happening. Local police in Latin America are failing to offer protection for those threatened by violence. As many as 95% of crimes go unpunished.

In 2013, the Attorney General of Honduras, Luis Alberti Rubi, announced that law enforcement there had the manpower to investigate only about 20 percent of the nation’s murders. He was saying 80 percent of murders would go unpunished. Imagine if our attorney general made a similar announcement here. Such a declaration would be seen correctly as a confession of abject failure to protect the people.

Strong gang presence in Latin America has meant competition for territorial and economic control through extortion, kidnapping and the retail sale of drugs. Staying safe and avoiding being targeted in the midst of all these dangers is not easy. The criminal gangs have made violent threats and sexual assaults common.

When Latin Americans seek to come to the United. States, they are following in exactly the same tradition as earlier waves of immigrants to America. Our great grandfathers and grandmothers who came to America did not have visas and passports. They got the money together for boat fare and they came.

The concept of “legality” is relatively new. Between 1880 and World War I, almost 25 million Europeans immigrated to the United State. They were not standing in some mythological line of legality, waiting their turn. There were no illegal immigrants then because there was no law making immigration illegal for Europeans. That remained true until 1924.

The government excluded only 1% of the 25 million European immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island before World War I and that was mostly for health reasons.

Pinning the label “illegal” on immigrants trying to escape extreme violence themselves is a technique that criminalizes and allows Trump and his supporters to avoid any effort to understand actual circumstances. It also bypasses the legal issue of asylum and whether large numbers of the Latin American immigrants qualify under current law.

The zero tolerance policy toward asylum represented by the Trump Administration is inconsistent with our best traditions. During his tenure, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions dramatically narrowed the grounds allowed for asylum by opining that gang violence (and domestic violence) could no longer be a legitimate basis for a claim of persecution.

Sessions’ opinion could not come at a more harmful time for those trying to escape the gangs in their home countries. Sessions obscured the reality that denial of asylum may well mean return to places where the asylum seeker gets killed by the criminal gangs that they tried to escape.

Equally repellent is the view being promoted of immigrants who have made it into the United States. To quote President Trump in his January argument for the border wall:

“Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now.”

Contrary to the President’s assertions, the vast majority of research finds that immigrants are less likely to cause crime and they are also less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born peers. The desire to stay in the United States is a powerful incentive away from crime.

The negative fear-based view of immigrants often shows up in New Hampshire in any article that mentions Lawrence Ma. Usually, the only thing mentioned is drugs and drug deaths of hundreds of Granite Staters. As someone, who has worked in Lawrence daily for the last 8 years, I resent the unfair portrayal of the city. I wonder if those who trash the city have ever been there. Like other working class communities, Lawrence has many hard working people who are trying to get their piece of the American dream.

Focus on Lawrence as a drug den is extremely one-sided. New Hampshire is not the pure victim being harmed by immigrants from south of the border.

Immigration is a topic where partisans see what they want to see. Fear has been replacing understanding and the narrative war continues.

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