Building on the Outrage

I am no fan of James Comey, who infamously helped Trump get elected, but do appreciate that he recently raised an idea that resembles one that I addressed in a post a few years ago. In my post, I asked whether images of people being subjected to immigration enforcement might lead the American public to oppose immigration restrictions, just as television images of police mistreatment of civil rights activists in the 1960s created sympathy for the civil rights movement. Comey posits that large numbers of moderate Americans are being “stirred” by recent images of immigrant children who have been forcibly separated from their parents by the government, noting that the images recall those of African Americans being attacked in the South in the 1960s and perhaps suggesting that the heightened awareness of moderates after seeing those images helped the civil rights movement succeed. (Here is an audio recording of immigrant children taken from their families. Here are photos of immigrant children in detention.)

Comey’s underlying point is that this galvanizing of moderate Americans will lead to Trump’s defeat in 2020, not that it will lead to open borders or a dramatic change in immigration policy. Whether it will impact the 2020 election is unclear, but the widespread public outrage elicited by the separation policy may provide an extraordinary opportunity for open borders advocates to change public opinion about immigration restrictionism more generally.  Advocates can build on the current focus on this one horror associated with immigration restrictions to help the public realize that the cruelty of restrictionism is systemic.

To begin with, the remarkable events of the last few weeks should be noted.  First, polls were released showing that most Americans are against the separation of immigrant children from their parents, that less than one third of Americans support decreasing immigration, which is the smallest share who feel this way in over five decades, and that 75 percent of Americans say immigration is good for the country. Second, civil disobedience targeting the separation policy has occurred. In Portland, Oregon, protesters, apparently hundreds, camped outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, forcing the facility to shut down for a week before officers forced them to leave on June 28. Similar protests forced the closure of ICE buildings in other U.S. cities. Third, politicians and candidates are increasingly vocal in calling on ICE to be abolished or defunded.  (See also here.) A U.S. representative is planning legislation to abolish ICE, and he reportedly has support from other representatives. Fourth, numerous marches demanding the reuniting of immigrant families took place on June 30, apparently in all fifty states. The enormous negative reaction to the separation policy even forced Trump to officially end the policy

It also should be acknowledged that probably most people who are opposed to the separation policy, even including those who are calling for the abolition of ICE, don’t support open borders. There are likely a multitude of positions held on immigration policy more generally.

However, the enormity of the opposition to and the protests against the mistreatment of immigrants by immigration authorities is apparently unprecedented, despite Trump’s constant propaganda alleging that many immigrants are a threat to America. The reaction seems to dwarf even the opposition to the travel ban implemented in early 2017.

So what should open borders advocates do to extend this outrage to restrictionism generally?  Per James Comey, we should acknowledge that the current opposition to family separations is a visceral response to images and sounds of inhumanity, especially those of children suffering. Therefore, it makes sense to also expose the American public to images of immigrant suffering arising from immigration enforcement in other contexts. We need to illuminate the many horrors caused by immigration restrictions, helping people understand that the entire restrictionist system, not just the Trump separation policy, is immoral. (This proposition admittedly is contrary to the conclusion I reached in my earlier post.)

As open borders advocates know, the separations are but the tip of an enormous iceberg of suffering caused by immigration restrictions.  As Francisco Cantu, a former Border Patrol agent, has noted: “It is important to understand that the crisis of separation manufactured by the Trump administration is only the most visibly abhorrent manifestation of a decades-long project to create a ‘state of exception’ along our southern border.”  (“State of exception” refers to the suspension or diminishment of rights and protections for people.) And the suffering extends far beyond the southern border.

To start with, ending the Trump administration’s policy of taking immigrant children away from their parents doesn’t mean an end to family separation caused by immigration enforcement. The traditional way of breaking up families under all presidential administrations has been to detain and/or deport one or both undocumented parents, often of children who are citizens. According to The Washington Post, more than 100,000 citizens lose a spouse or parent to deportation each year. For example, as I noted in a previous post, “after a father of two U.S. citizens had been in detention for six months, his wife reported that ‘her 2-year-old son wakes up crying for his father every night, while her 3-year-old daughter has refused to learn to count or tie her shoes until he comes home.’” When parents are deported, family reunification can come at a high price: relocating children to dangerous countries and/or countries with limited economic opportunities.  

Deportees themselves suffer immensely. According to The Atlantic, many Central American migrants are deported by Mexican authorities before reaching the U.S., especially since the U.S. in recent years has been infusing money into a program to enable the Mexican government to block the migrants’ trip north. To give one example, late last year a Honduran teenager was deported from Mexico while journeying to the U.S.  He had fled his country after gang members tried to shoot him. The boy now rarely leaves his home. When he does go out, he is at risk from both gang members and the police, who often view all teenagers as potential criminals and who could arrest him on almost any pretense.

“Once arrested, he’d be in their hands—’almost a death sentence,’ he said. He feared they’d torture or kill him, practices identified by social organizations and journalists across Central America… Edwin had spent his short life on the run: from gang members, from U.S.-supported police in Mexico, from U.S.-supported police in Honduras.”  

In a previous post, I highlighted the suffering of other deportees.

In addition, U.S. immigration enforcement causes many deaths.   According to the government, at least 6,000 people have died trying to cross the U.S. Mexico border since the 1990’s.  Others suggest the number may be much higher, as The Guardian reports:

The US Border Patrol agency has engineered the death and disappearance of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants by using the desert wilderness as a ‘weapon,’ according to an advocacy group.  Agents chase and scatter border crossers across hostile terrain in a strategy that leaves many people injured, dead or lost, turning the US’s south-western frontier into a ‘vast graveyard of the missing,’ the Arizona-based group No More Deaths said…”

Moreover, many Haitians and Cubans may have died attempting to reach the U.S.

Documenting on video or taking photos of the experiences of deportees, of the physical harm caused when migrants try to evade border controls, and of various forms of family separation due to immigration enforcement and then widely disseminating the images would help more Americans comprehend, viscerally, the impact of immigration restrictions in general, building on the current focus on Trump’s separation policy. Documenting other consequences of restrictionism, from attacks on immigrants by agents to harsh detention conditions, also might “stir” the American public.

Perhaps once many Americans are convinced of the systemic cruelty of restrictionism, they will be more receptive to the more abstract cases for open borders that we have shared on this site. The summer of 2018 may be the beginning, with enough finesse on our part, of a shift in public opinion towards open borders.


Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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