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Tomgram: Aviva Chomsky, The Fight Over the Criminalization of Immigrants

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Forget Emma Lazarus's poetry and the Statue of Liberty; you really don't want to be an immigrant in today's America. As Dara Lind recently pointed out at Vox, being an immigrant or the child of one (even if you're a U.S. citizen) now means living in a "miasma of fear." That's the conclusion of two recent studies of immigrants of every sort, including those who are permanent residents and their children. And who could be surprised in an American world in which, from Donald Trump's future wall on the border with Mexico to Attorney General Jeff Session's court assault on California's immigration policies, the very idea of being an immigrant has been transformed into a vision of crime, gangs, drugs, and that biggest bugaboo of all in our era, terrorists? Since Trump's first day in the presidential race in June 2015 when he denounced Mexican immigrants as "rapists," he and his associates have never let up. Demonizing the very idea of immigration, at least from "shithole countries," which turn out to be just about anyplace not run by white people, has been the order of the day.

As in Europe, so here, the new right-wing populism has engorged itself on a diet of immigrants, refugees, and Islamist terror. And in a world that's coming increasingly unglued, particularly under the pressure of Washington's never-ending war on terror across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, we've undoubtedly had only a taste of what's still to come. We already know from figures released last year by the U.N. refugee agency that in 2016 there were an estimated 65.6 million displaced people on this planet, almost 23 million of them refugees (that is, people who had actually crossed at least one international border), startling numbers of them children. Those figures haven't been matched since the end of World War II.

And that's just a beginning, given those that, in the decades to come, are likely to be uprooted by the ravages of climate change (and the droughts, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and potential wars that will be associated with it). One U.N. estimate suggests that, by 2050, up to a quarter of a billion people may be displaced by its effects and such figures could prove underestimates. As Todd Miller has written, "By 2050, 10% percent of all Mexicans between 15 and 65 might be heading north, thanks to rising temperatures, droughts, and floods."

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So, as a subject, immigration is likely to be alive and well in 2050, by which time god knows where the present criminalization of the immigrant will have gone. That's why it's so important to talk a little sense when it comes to the overheating world of the American immigrant, as TomDispatch regular Aviva Chomsky, author of Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, does today. Tom

Talking Sense About Immigration
Rejecting the President's Manichaean Worldview
By Aviva Chomsky

The immigration debate seems to have gone crazy.

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President Obama's widely popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which offered some 750,000 young immigrants brought to the United States as children a temporary reprieve from deportation, is ending... except it isn't... except it is... President Trump claims to support it but ordered its halt, while both Republicans and Democrats insist that they want to preserve it and blame each other for its impending demise. (Meanwhile, the Supreme Court recently stepped in to allow DACA recipients to renew their status at least for now.)

On a single day in mid-February, the Senate rejected no less than four immigration bills. These ranged from a narrow proposal to punish sanctuary cities that placed limits on local police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to major overhauls of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that established the current system of immigration quotas (with preferences for "family reunification").

And add in one more thing: virtually everyone in the political sphere is now tailoring his or her pronouncements and votes to political opportunism rather than the real issues at hand.

Politicians and commentators who once denounced "illegal immigration," insisting that people "do it the right way," are now advocating stripping legal status from many who possess it and drastically cutting even legalized immigration. These days, the hearts of conservative Republicans, otherwise promoting programs for plutocrats, are bleeding for low-wage workers whose livelihoods, they claim (quite incorrectly), are being undermined by competition from immigrants. Meanwhile, Chicago Democrat Luis Gutie'rrez -- a rare, reliably pro-immigrant voice in Congress -- recently swore that, when it came to Trump's much-touted wall on the Mexican border, he was ready to "take a bucket, take bricks, and start building it myself... We will dirty our hands in order for the Dreamers to have a clean future in America."

While in Gutie'rrez's neck of the woods, favoring Dreamers may seem politically expedient, giving in to Trump's wall would result in far more than just dirty hands, buckets, and bricks, and the congressman knows that quite well. The significant fortifications already in place on the U.S.-Mexican border have already contributed to the deaths of thousands of migrants, to the increasing militarization of the region, to a dramatic rise of paramilitary drug- and human-smuggling gangs, and to a rise in violent lawlessness on both sides of the border. Add to that a 2,000-mile concrete wall or some combination of walls, fences, bolstered border patrols, and the latest in technology and you're not just talking about some benign waste of money in return for hanging on to the DACA kids.

In the swirl of all this, the demands of immigrant rights organizations for a "clean Dream Act" that would genuinely protect DACA recipients without giving in to Trump's many anti-immigration demands have come to seem increasingly unrealistic. No matter that they hold the only morally coherent position in town -- and a broadly popular one nationally as well -- DACA's congressional backers seem to have already conceded defeat.

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Good Guys and Bad Guys

It won't surprise you, I'm sure, to learn that Donald Trump portrays the world in a strikingly black-and-white way when it comes to immigration (and so much else). He emphasizes the violent criminal nature of immigrants and the undocumented, repeatedly highlighting and falsely generalizing from relatively rare cases in which one of them committed a violent crime like the San Francisco killing of Kate Steinle. His sweeping references to "foreign bad guys" and "shithole countries" suggest that he applies the same set of judgments to the international arena.

Under Trump's auspices, the agency in charge of applying the law to immigrants, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has taken the concept of criminality to new heights in order to justify expanded priorities for deportation. Now, an actual criminal conviction is no longer necessary. An individual with "pending criminal charges" or simply a "known gang member" has also become an ICE "priority." In other words, a fear-inspiring accusation or even rumor is all that's needed to deem an immigrant a "criminal."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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