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Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy

If you scan the Internet for immigration-related news stories following the Trump administration’s May 7 announcement of its “zero tolerance” border policy, you’ll find the word “chaos” coming up time and time again. Here, for example, is a July 10 headline from my hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times: “First wave of migrants is reunited: amid chaos and legal clashes, U.S. returns 38 of 102 children to parents but misses deadline set by judge.”

In this headline the Times editors used the word “chaos” to allude to several kinds of disorder depicted in the news story: the suffering of 64 families with children under 5 who were still separated from their parents, the anguish and anxiety facing another 2000-3000 children ages 5-17 who had yet to be reunited with their parents, and the general uncertainty produced by constant fluctuations in government policy and actions.

If there were any pattern to this chaos, it was identified by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who rejected the administration’s effort to extend the amount the time that children could be detained. In explaining her July 9 ruling, Judge Gee described the administration’s effort as a “cynical attempt…to shift responsibility to the Judiciary for over 20 years of Congressional inaction and ill-considered Executive action that have led to the current stalemate.”

Judge Gee pinpointed a crucial fact about the current situation. President Trump has steered immigration policy to new heights of cruelty and turmoil, but our immigration system has been vexed by serious problems long before he came into office. Though the judge didn’t address broader issues of policy in her ruling, her critique still provokes consideration of a basic question: how do we find our way out of the chaos facing us today?

A number of commentators have argued that it’s essential we first come to terms with U.S. involvements in Central America that helped stoke the political instability and violence impelling people to journey northward in search of safety and livelihood. They point, for example, to the CIA involvement in the 1954 coup that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, and to the subsequent U.S. military involvement in a civil war (1960-1996) that claimed 200,000 lives. Similarly, the U.S. provided significant military aid to a right-wing government in El Salvador responsible for killings, kidnappings, and torture during a devastating civil war (1980-1992) that claimed more than 75,000 lives. During these conflicts and in ensuing decades, thousands of people fled to the U.S. Now, as thousands more arrive at our borders fleeing violence, often inflicted by gangs incubated in the U.S. and stimulated abroad by our own harsh deportation policies, they argue that homeland security should be guided by a firm sense of global responsibility rather than the fear and amnesia binding us ever more tightly in the confining walls of a garrison state.

University of Southern California professor Roberto Suro noted that President Trump has submitted budget requests for immigration enforcement and detention ($26 billion) and for a border wall ($18 billion) that almost match the gross domestic product of El Salvador and Honduras combined ($46 billion). As he said in a recent New York Times column, “a fraction of the enforcement budget well spent on economic development . . . would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than trying to intercept people in flight at a militarized border and then criminalizing them.”

But more than responsibility is needed as a foundational value for homeland security. Justice is needed as well. More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? In that book, he addressed the interconnected evils of racism, militarism, and economic injustice, not only in the context of American society, but in a global sense as well. In his final chapter, “The World House,” he discussed the technological and scientific changes that have made human societies throughout the world ever more interdependent – and that have heightened expectations for human rights and dignity.

When he published Where Do We Go From Here? in 1967, the U.S. had no detention system for migrants. Such a system, driven by the profit motive and rife with human rights abuses, wouldn’t come into place until the 1980s. Now, more than 50 years later, it’s time to abolish that system and begin realizing the global promise of a just and interdependent society that Dr. King had envisioned. Are there sane and sound alternatives to detention? Yes, there are, and they’ve been proven to work in community accompaniment programs around the country that have supported migrants seeking asylum, seeking a place in American society. (For further information, see the website for the organization, “Freedom for Immigrants”: https://www.freedomforimmigrants.org/).

As he often did in his writings, King concluded his book with a challenge. Invoking the power of nonviolence, he declared, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” That choice, in a different time and in a different context, is still before us today.

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