On Wednesday, John F Kelly, the head of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the department tasked with implementing President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, laid out the administration’s vision before Congress. It included increasing vetting procedures for foreign nationals and, most pressingly, according to the newly appointed Kelly, fixing the “gaping wound” he considers to be the US-Mexico border.
“The security challenges facing DHS and our nation are considerable, particularly along the southern border,” said Kelly, a former head of the US forces in Latin America.
The retired four-star Marine General framed the issue of immigration and the US-Mexico border as the foremost national security issue.
“Our vigorous response to these threats must include increased border security infrastructure, personnel, and technology,” said Kelly, in line with Trump’s directives to boost border security, open new detention centres, and authorise state and local law enforcement officers to act as immigration officers.
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Referring to the support for Trump’s policies within the Republican-dominated House, Congressman Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee of Homeland Security, said: “I think for the first time we have the political will to get something done.”
Another Republican Congressman, Scott Perry, spoke of “less secure” borders during the previous administration. “… Immigration agents could literally be fired for enforcing immigration laws,” he said.
But the claim that the Obama administration was soft on immigrants is far from true. Nearly 2.5 million people were deported between 2005 and 2015. Obama expanded immigration enforcement personnel and deported more undocumented immigrants than any other administration in history.
Voices from the border
The rhetoric from the GOP and the new administration on immigrants have heightened concerns – long held by border residents and rights activists – about the effect of the proposed increased militarisation of their communities and continuation of an immigration policy that is viewed almost entirely through the lens of national security.
“That narrative that the borderlands are out of control, that it’s a national security threat, that the only way to address the border question is through military might, is both shameful and misguided,” said Christian Ramirez, the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC).
“We believe in security. But the biggest concern is that security cannot come at the expense of people’s dignity and rights,” said Ramirez, highlighting the proliferation of internal immigration checkpoints, mass surveillance and little oversight or accountability for immigration enforcement officials.
“Living in border communities, we see the border wall to be as much a signal of racial and ethnic bias against our communities as it is an infrastructure policy,” said Brian Erickson, a border policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.
He sad that the “aggressive policing agenda will result in widespread civil rights violations, dragnet surveillance and harassment of border residents“.
Erickson pointed towards the legacy of abuses by law enforcement within the 100-mile border zone, where immigration enforcement officials are given extraordinary powers to search, detain and operate checkpoints.
SBCC, along with the American Immigration Council, organised a telephonic briefing of “borderland stakeholders” a day before the DHS hearing to raise the voices of those most affected by these policies.
It included people from each of the southern border states. One of them was a border patrol checkpoint expert named Jorge Rodriguez, who has lived his whole life in the 100-mile border zone and says he has had his daily life affected by the extraordinary powers granted to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest police force in the nation.
“As a young Mexican-American male I am suspicious. I don’t have the ability to be unsuspicious. I exist as a marked body,” said Rodriguez, who says he has experienced harassment and racial profiling since he was a student.
“How useful are rights if exercising them leads to abuse?” he asked, addressing the teleconference.
The experiences described by Rodriguez are born out of the extra-constitutional powers given to CBP, a law enforcement agency that Trump’s executive order proposes to expand by 5,000 agents.
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution protects Americans from random and arbitrary stops and searches. But border patrol – unlike all other law enforcement agencies – has the “the authority to interrogate anyone they think are aliens, search any vehicles in the 100-mile [zone], and within 25 miles of [the] border they are able to enter on to private property all without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion,” said Andrea Guerrero, the executive director of Alliance San Diego in California and co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
The purpose of the teleconference, according to Ramirez, was to highlight these lived realities and provide the perspectives that are rarely taken into account by policymakers in Washington DC.
He said roughly $20bn is spent on border enforcement each year, even as the border communities most affected remain some of the poorest in the nation. “These realities are rarely mentioned on Capitol Hill [the seat of US power].”
While the Republican-led committee largely voiced support for Trump’s executive orders, there were a few at the hearing who countered the rhetoric on immigration.
“You call it the gaping wound,” said Congressman Jose Luis “Lou” Correa, the California representative, referring to Kelly’s statement. “[But] right now immigration from Mexico is at all-time lows.”
The number of people living illegally in the country has dropped below 2005 levels, he added.
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Others questioned the representation of immigrants and of border communities as places of violence and crime – claims made by a number of congressmen during the hearing and throughout Trump’s election campaign.
“The claims of lawlessness and rampant violence in our border communities is just wrong,” said Eddie Trevino, a county judge from Texas and a witness during the hearing’s second panel.
“It is nothing more than an attempt to paint it as something that it is not in order to support the misguided rhetoric against border communities, Mexican people and immigrants both legal and undocumented,” said Trevino.
“The border wall concept is ineffective and creates a false sense of security,” Trevino added. “It is utilising a 14th-century solution to address a 21st-century problem.”
Conflating immigration and security
Unfazed by any criticism, the Trump administration has gone ahead with pushing immigration as a paramount security issue.
“One thing that Trump is effective at, is conflating refugees and immigration as above all else a national security issue,” said Kevin Appleby of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies.
“These executive orders are using security as a smokescreen to simply reduce immigration and refugees and to justify mass deportation.”