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We know this because the architects of this system have been telling us for the better part of two decades. As far back as 2003, President George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcraft, advocated for immigrant detention in order to send “a message of deterrence to other Central American individuals who may be considering immigration.” In 2015, the Obama administration used the same deterrence argument to justify the detention of migrant children.
When current government officials say that child separation is designed, in part, to disincentivize mothers from migrating with their children, they are being forthright. When then Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in 2017 that the “big name of the game is deterrence,” he was being sincere. More recently, even as interim DHS chief Kevin McAleenan told NBC News that family separation was “not worth it,” top administration officials expressed a preference for continuing family separation under the guise of “binary choice.”
There is a suite of policies — releasing migrants under community supervision, mandating regular, mandatory check-ins, and even some forms of electronic monitoring — that the US government could implement which would treat migrants and asylum seekers humanely. These measures would not only be more effective in implementing U.S. law, they would also fulfill obligations under international law. But these policies are incompatible with the ideology of white nationalism — a guiding principle in the White House — or the preferences of GOP voters, a majority of whom support harsh treatment of migrant children.
But the purpose of this cruelty goes beyond dehumanization for the sake of dehumanization.
And so, we end up with policies focused on detention and family separation, even though there is ample evidence indicating that neither are effective in deterring migration. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic last year, “cruelty is the point” of many of these policies, not to mention the political motives to capitalize on the fear of outsiders. But the purpose of this cruelty goes beyond dehumanization for the sake of dehumanization. The purpose is to manufacture a crisis.
By shocking those of us who abhor detention and necessitating that journalists, activists, and civil society organizations highlight pervasive human rights abuses inside the system, the cruelty has a strange way of co-opting outrage in the service of Trump’s own desired narrative. As evidenced in other parts of the world where migrants and asylum seekers have been mistreated, the rhetoric of crisis is useful to demagogues in manufacturing a sense of urgency that shifts the policy debate away from practical solutions and skews it toward more drastic measures.
If there is no crisis, there is no pretext for ICE raids, for ripping children out of their mother’s arms, for building more detention centers, let alone for building a wall. That’s why the crisis must be manufactured — through overcrowded cells and underfunded camps — because migrants and asylum seekers showing up at the U.S. border, alone, do not constitute one.
It seems as though this tactic is paying off. On Monday, the Trump administration took the extreme, and legally dubious, measure of removing protections for most asylum seekers who arrive at the US southern border, arguing that the U.S. is “completely overwhelmed” and unable to process the flow of migrants.
How do we get from families seeking asylum to children locked up in concentration camps and asylum seekers being turned away? The daily rants by Fox News sycophants play a vital role in pumping the language of white supremacy into our national conversation. But so do the “Never Trump” columnists in our most prestigious newspapers, whose entire intellectual gambit is coating these ideas with a patina of urbane sophistication in the name of sober-minded centrism. Their objections to Trump have always been more about style — he’s boorish and ill-tempered — than substance. The bulk of their criticism is still aimed at those who oppose Trump’s policies, and it becomes his opponents who are out of touch and unreasonable. With time, extreme policies — like family separation and blocking asylum seekers — become normalized as talking-head fodder, to be entertained on our national news shows, piped in over Sunday breakfast.
In a world of finite political capital and fleeting attention spans, the language of crisis becomes shorthand, and the conversation never gets back to where it should be. Rather than demand that concentration camps be shuttered, we end up with a self-described “Problem Solvers Caucus” working with Republicans to pump an additional $4.6 billion into the very system that has created the crisis in the first place.
The process of actualizing xenophobic rhetoric into concentration camps on the border and nationwide raids that tear communities apart is not necessarily straightforward, but it is a process nonetheless. As the Trump administration and its allies have demonstrated to great effect, the current policy is to manufacture a crisis, and now we have arrived at the point where U.S. policy is to deny asylum seekers their legal right to seek refuge. The United States does not have an immigration crisis — it has an immigration policy crisis.