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Fear and Opportunity in Immigration Politics

With each passing week, the battle of words over immigration intensifies, as Trump administration officials continue honing their favorite rhetorical weapon: fear. This past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that people crossing the border illegally will be charged for criminal offenses instead of facing civil deportation proceedings, and that they will be separated from their children. As he asserted, “we’re here to send a message that we are not going to let the country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border.”

In making this statement, Sessions alluded to the migrant caravans that have traveled to the U.S. border from Mexico and Central America each spring, bringing asylum seekers fleeing the violence threatening their own lives and the lives of their family members. One such caravan began this past March from Mexico’s border with Guatemala, gathering up to 1200 people on the journey north until a remnant of about 150 asylum seekers finally reached the California border at the end of April.

Although migrants have banded together for some years to protect themselves along the dangerous route northward, and though asylum requests are recognized by international treaties to which the U.S. is signatory, President Trump characterized the latest caravan as a threat to U.S. security and as a symptom of a failed immigration system. In one tweet he declared, “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming’.” Or, as he told a rally in Michigan, “Are you watching that mess that’s going on right now with the caravan coming up? We have the worst laws anywhere in the world, we don’t have borders.”

By inciting fear, Trump and the other members of his administration have tried to shape the debates over such issues as sanctuary cities, deportation, the travel ban, and the status of the Dreamers. They’ve succeeded to the extent that they’ve continued to squelch the possibility of any meaningful immigration reform. Yet their policies and fear-mongering have also provoked a powerful backlash, as immigrants’ rights activists and their allies point up the cruelty and inhumanity of the policies. Countless stories have appeared in newspapers, TV, and other media outlets showing how deportations and border arrests have wrenched families apart, and how for-profit detention facilities have proven notorious for greed and human rights abuses. Though Trump’s fear-mongering continues to arouse many supporters, others have been repelled by the racist characterizations driving Trump’s discourse since the beginning of his presidential candidacy.

November’s midterm elections will offer a crucial test of Trump’s politics of fear; they also give immigration rights advocates a new opportunity and challenge. With economic hardship continuing to afflict many Americans since the financial crisis of 2008, an atmosphere of uncertainty and unease continues to hover over the political landscape. Whether a person is a laid-off factory worker trying to find a service job paying half her former factory wages, or a teacher or city employee working part-time at 7-Eleven to make ends meet, or a college student struggling with debt and housing insecurity, too many Americans are living on the edge economically. More than 40 percent of the American population are either poor or low income, according to the most recent census figures.

Unease and economic hardship have been focal points of Donald Trump’s politics ever since he entered the national political scene, but his default response has been to divide and to hide. He has used fear to obscure the true engine of inequality: neither personal flaws nor abstract impersonal forces, but rather the exercise of political influence that has, over the past several decades, shifted vast amounts of wealth to a smaller and smaller elite (with 38.6 percent of the wealth now possessed by the richest 1 percent).

As the midterm elections draw nearer, Trump and company will rev up the fear machine, but the champions of immigrants’ rights have a unique opportunity not only to challenge lies with facts (e.g. facts about the economic and cultural benefits accruing from immigration), but also to move the discourse in a new direction.

Immigration has been a defining phenomenon that has shaped the American nation since its founding, and the creation of a just and fair immigration policy can’t be seen as a stand-alone or segmented political issue. Carving a path to citizenship for the Dreamers is important and necessary, but it’s only one step in a comprehensive reform that will, among other things, remove criminalization from all 11 million undocumented people in the country and abolish the iniquitous for-profit detention centers. Moving reform forward will require leaders with the vision and eloquence to show that protecting immigrants’ rights means protecting all our rights – and that the struggle for economic justice is inextricably bound up with the struggle for immigration justice. This is both the opportunity and the challenge.

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