On Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and the US Immigration System
Here in the UK, all we hear about the US is Trump’s supposed misdemeanours and misgivings, both politically and, well, not. But it is without a doubt the white supremacists and bigots he has surrounded himself with that are doing the real damage. Here’s a look into Sessions’ new immigration reforms, and some of the issues surrounding immigration in the US. It’s not pretty.
On Monday, the attorney-general delivered a ruling that reversed the last 200 or so years of US policy on asylum and immigration. The ruling means that judges may no longer deem escaping gang violence and sexual exploitation alone as grounds for granting asylum for those who arrive at the supposedly open borders of the US fleeing the most terrifying horrors. These people arrive from Central America, from Venezuela (which now has the largest refugee crisis in the world, with over 5,000 fleeing per day), from the parts of the Middle East that aren’t yet banned; they flee persecution as women, as homosexuals, as Muslim, as Christians, as Jews.
On Thursday, Sessions came out and said that the Bible condones his ruling, citing all sorts of nonsense, particularly mentioning how God instructed a wall to be built around Jerusalem to keep out immigrants. If we put aside that he is a genuinely bad person and a white supremacist, this argument still has holes all over it. For one, what happened 2,000 years ago in a land almost 6,000 miles away bears no relevance to today: maybe this might be a bit more logical if God had spoken to Sessions himself. Even still, his argument would be ludicrous — while we may be tolerant and accepting of religious beliefs, it doesn’t mean that they are correct. Citing a mythical overlord and fictitious workings as the grounds for an inherently racist ruling just to make it more politically palatable is poor, even by the attorney-general’s standards.
Then there’s the issue of Trump himself. In April, the President made comments about the ‘caravan of people’ from Honduras, and how it ‘had better be stopped before it gets there’. This unnecessary commentary, spurred on of course by Fox and Friends (perhaps it would be more accurate to call this show the President of the United States) paved the way for this ridiculous ruling. But, interestingly, now the ruling has been formally issued, Trump hasn’t tweeted about it, he hasn’t backed it up (albeit nor has he criticised it), and he is remaining, at least for the time being, remarkably silent. One suspects that Trump doesn’t want this politically fatal blow and that he wants to distance himself from the policy to ensure his popularity, but he does not wish to jeopardise the ruling itself. He is quite happy to let his seemingly estranged AG Sessions, with whom he has, let’s say, an on and off relationship with, get on with the job.
Back in February and March (and again in April), the tussle between the pair showed again how relationships in the White House were fractured and broken, and signalled, in the minds of many, the downfall of Sessions. Alas, he has continued in his role, and one does wonder the extent to which this is cold, calculated design by the pair. Have a little public spat, quietly get back to business, and use the supposedly poor communications as a political barrier, in order to distance the President from the racist and controversial rulings issued by the Attorney-General. It’s certainly plausible, and it would absolutely do the job of deflecting negative “Fake News Media” attention off of Trump himself.
Alternatively, there’s the more frightening interpretation. Perhaps Trump simply just doesn’t have control of the White House and the Cabinet, or, worse, Trump thinks that splitting up families and sending people back to violence and trauma is politically, logically and morally sound. If it is the former, then that really is scary. People like Jeff Sessions simply being able to do as they wish and enact the racist agenda that they would never have been allowed to under previous Republican commanders-in-chief is a thought that isn’t particularly easy to stomach. If, however, it is the former, then that’s probably all we expected of a man who labelled asylum seekers from Central America as ‘rapist and drug lords’ on the campaign trail.
Sessions: Crystal Clear
Many government officials and Cabinet ministers of the past have been somewhat enigmatic, and have kept their metaphorical cards close to their chest. They often don’t seem to have much of a past at all, let alone a controversial one. But this all changed with Trump’s Cabinet nominations, and Jeff Sessions is no exception to this rule.
In 1986, Sessions, a 39-year-old attorney at the time, was denied a judgeship on grounds of racism — his colleagues who testified before the Senate committee spoke of his use of racist slurs and jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, and he was refused. Now, despite his past, he is the attorney-general of the USA, confirmed by a 52–47 vote in the Senate well over a year ago.
It has since transpired of his use of racial slurs against colleagues and staff no fewer than EIGHT times (and that’s just the completely proven allegations).
In addition, Sessions opposed fiercely a movement by the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance against an Alabama law that blocked funding to student organisations that advocated homosexuality, before being overruled by a District Court in 1996.
I won’t go on too far here — you get my point. There is no doubt that Sessions and many emerging lawmakers are more extreme than ever before, and more and more so are racist, sexist, and homophobic, and the continuation and rise of these prejudices in America is of great concern. For a nation supposedly welcoming to all, they are trying their best to undermine this, and there are still numerous social inequalities to be resolved in the US before it can really claim such an accolade again.
ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Symptomatic of the “hostile environment” (which we don’t even know the meaning of in the UK) created by the attorney-general and many of his colleagues is the horrific crimes perpetrated by ICE. After Monday’s ruling, we saw a step up in their cruel campaign to separate families no matter the cost, and have recently heard stories such as the mother who had her child taken from her while breastfeeding.
But away from this particular ruling, there is a much deeper issue surrounding ICE. Their inability to treat people as humans and successive governments doing little to reform the agency or curb their powers has led to undocumented immigrants being too scared to report crimes due to the constant threat of deportation. Even in the self-avowed sanctuary cities, the supposed safe havens for undocumented immigrants, ICE are beginning to erode the barriers which hold them out. By a mixture of bribery, Presidential and Congressional support, and brute force ICE are now firmly in control of immigration in the US, with only a few remaining true sanctuary cities holding strong.
In May 2017, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, signed a bill to prevent sanctuary cities in the state, and thus began the huge swing towards more extreme policy on this issue within the Republican party. After almost 8 years of dominating Congress (including 6 out of 8 years during Obama’s reign as the President), it seems the GOP is tilting ever more right, and gaining more and more confidence to pass the bills that they truly want to. Since Donald Trump’s election and the 2016 race for the Presidency, the Republicans have become more extreme not just on policy but also in their members — how could anyone forget Roy Moore’s only narrow loss in Alabama despite being a paedophile? Joe Arpaio is publicly endorsed by seemingly every Republican except Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, despite his horrific abuses of human rights as sheriff of Maricopa County. Just a few days ago, he said on Sessions’ ruling that the adults fleeing war and violence and rape and gangs are to blame for the situation, and backed ICE in their brutal campaign to separate families and orphan children.
However, ICE is a rogue agency, and will act in the same way regardless of the current government or the President. Their actions are merely covered up by extreme politicians; they do not exacerbate the severity of the situation.
The encouragement of ICE’s reactionary aggression by Trump has caused one veteran agent to grow disillusioned with the agency, as described by Jonathan Blitzer in the New Yorker. While the agent is obviously not the most endearing towards undocumented immigrants, he has grown frustrated with ICE’s changes of late, and now is beginning to see things more clearly, stepping into the shoes of the ‘aliens’ themselves, and their families. He also berates the degradation of DACA and the protection of children and young people (the ‘Dreamers’) from deportation. Trump merely allows this to happen — but it was always going to. As frustration within the agency grew at Obama’s reforms and immigration policies, more and more young reactionaries from the extreme right began to join ICE to enact their racist agenda, knowing that eventually the opportunity to do so, under a Republican or laissez-faire Democrat, would arise.
It is this phenomenon that encapsulates the attitudes of ICE and its agents. They wait for a chance and grab it with both hands when it arrives. The culture never changes, and when there is an agency specifically tasked with clearing out undocumented immigrants and nothing else, why would it change? Sessions has sought to take full advantage of this culture as attorney-general and, supported by Trump’s anti-immigration populist rhetoric, has delivered several rulings and policies to unshackle ICE and increase their powers and capacities.
The contrasting attitudes to immigration in America
The US is notoriously open to immigration. The foundation of the US was from 13 different British colonies, which were comprised almost entirely of second, third, and fourth generation immigrants. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty — gifted to the US by the French — reads as follows:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This demonstrates the US’ remarkably accepting view towards immigration — but of course throughout the country’s short history there has been significant opposition to this policy of completely open borders.
The American Protective Association, founded in 1887, was a primarily anti-Catholic organisation set up by American Protestants to protect the population from the threat of Catholicism — flooding on to the continent at a rapid speed. The Association also opposed the Jewish and Buddhist communities beginning to enter the US, and started a huge anti-immigration campaign. In its short 25-year history, it managed to amass 2 million members at its peak, showing the huge opposition to immigration that existed even at this stage in the US’ history. And in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese workers from entering the US; this signalled the official government adoption of anti-immigration policies. It would pave the way for future bills passed by Congress and endorsed by the executive when the pair were dominated by first Democrats, and then Republicans after the latter’s switch to regressive and reactionary politics.
But what we see now in the US is something much bigger than a few isolated policies. Now, there is no one single culture regarding immigration, but rather two contrasting sets of values, that are largely divided by whether you live in a large, diverse metropolis or a small town or farming society. In the former, the attitudes are incredibly liberal and progressive, and they largely uphold the traditional beliefs and values of the US. However, in the countryside and smaller town, the story is very different.
The Trump vote came from two key geographical areas: the South and the rural regions. In these areas, a very different view of immigration exists. Throughout the history of the Union, there has always been simmering (and occasionally boiling) anger and frustration, for several different reasons. For some, immigration means a lack of available jobs, and being undercut by a group of immigrants who are willing to work for very little, and often for less than minimum wage in modern-day America. For others, their racial prejudices and ideologies prevent them from accepting immigrants as part of society — many don’t believe that the “inferior races” ought to be granted access to the US, often partly due to strong religious beliefs.
The aforementioned American Protective Association were founded not to keep out immigrants per se, but rather to stop the supposed threat posed to Americans by the religions being introduced to the US: Catholicism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The concept of “Manifest Destiny” was too grounded in religion — it was the arriving white Americans’ duty to conquer the whole continent, according to this theory, and build God’s very own kingdom with the new land. Of course, the belief in the inferiority of the Natives must be factored in, but there is no doubt that religious beliefs played a huge role in this too — and with the westwards migration came growing hatred towards Chinese immigrants who inhabited the towns in the west.
Recently, however, the South and rural areas have really begun to turn on immigration. The racist policies of Southern States in particular towards immigration, as well as Trump’s infamous travel ban on 8 countries, 6 of which are majority Muslim, are symptomatic of the hard right shift in the ideology of many in the South. More and more in the South, elected politicians are hardline radicals (as well as in the North, where many hardline Democrats are winning elections), and these can only be put in elected posts by the electorate. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that anger towards immigration is growing among this very electorate. This is not just happening in the US either — there is a growing hard-right political movement all over the world, with Italy’s prominent five-star group, Germany’s AfD, the UK’s decision to exit the European Union, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
So attitudes are changing in the US towards immigration. The established order in the country is no longer such that immigration is wholly tolerable, and many are rejecting it entirely. That’s why every political decision taken in America, by either side, with regards to immigration is controversial. The split between the South and the traditionalists has never been larger, with the Republicans now willing to countenance the most extreme policies, and the Democrats standing up for unchecked immigration which would cause unprecedented economic issues for the US.
Issues at the Southern Border
The Mexico-US border is the most frequently-crossed international border, with 350 million legal crossings, for permanent immigration and tourism. But then there’s the issue of illegal immigration, with 90% of this into the US being across the Southern border, with a total of 6 million undocumented Mexicans in the US in 2010, as revealed by USBP’s annual report for the year. But this is still not the full story, as many Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran immigrants also traverse the border, both legally and illegally. Since 1980, migrants from these three countries alone have accounted for 90% of Central American migration to the US, with a total (as of 2015) of 3,385,000 in the US (out of just over 4 million Central Americans living outside of the region).
The stories of families are incredibly moving too. Both before and after the policies of the Trump administration, the cries of children and parents alike echoed far along the border and reverberated towards the media — who picked them up and twisted them to whatever political point they wished to make. This is one of the problems in itself. In attempting to give a source for my points, I found none that I believed were reliable enough. As such, we really don’t know how much of the reports we can trust — some may miss out the parts they don’t like and only show either the negatives or the positives, and some, surely, must be falsifying reports. Both CNN and Fox News have been accused of this, and while there may perhaps be little substance, one wouldn’t put such a crime past either of the aforementioned organisations.
From the stories that we can believe, both historic and new, a rather melancholic picture is painted indeed. From the police officer alleged to have sexually abused a four-year-old after threatening her mother with deportation to the thousands of anecdotes about fathers, mothers, and children being brutally murdered by gangs, or worse, governments. From drugs to poverty, it becomes quite clear with every story that people aren’t just coming to the US as economic migrants, but rather fleeing prejudice, violence, and governments.
So clearly there is an issue. With so much illegal migration into the country, and a system that can barely keep up with the legal migration, the US is struggling to cope. Unfortunately, no-one appears to occupy anything resembling centre ground with regards to what should be done: Republicans are going completely insane and failing to remember that migrants to the US are usually seeking refuge and asylum from gang violence and conflict, and the Democrats want a system that encourages more and more illegal migration by providing unlimited support and assistance to those who arrive illegally.
The US Immigration System
The current system has many different ways for people to enter the US, to live both permanently and impermanently. One way, which has been hugely criticised by Trump (who labels it “chain migration”), is to enter as a family member. While the President certainly has a point — the system can lead to huge swathes of people entering the US, due to the vast number of close family members that many permanent residents have to bring in — the system does have restrictions. While Trump claims that there are cousins and distant relatives being brought in using the system, this is not happening. While some distant relatives may enter the US, they are not using the family-based immigration system, they are entering using one of the other systems, perhaps driven by a desire to be with their family but not being admitted into the country on this basis.
Another way is via the Employment-Based system, under which prospective immigrants can apply for both visas to work for temporary and permanent periods, the latter of which means the receipt of Lawful Permanent Residency (LPR), in order to live and work permanently in the US. People may enter as they are skilled labourers, have exceptional talent in an area, have large sums of money to invest in the US, have degrees, or are former government workers, including the military and intelligence agencies. Overall, a cap of 140,000 per year is set for the employment system.
Of course, there are provisions too for refugees and asylum seekers, but by far the most controversial element of immigration to the US is the “Diversity Visa Lottery”, a system brought into being by the Immigration Act of 1990. The American Immigration Council state:
Each year 55,000 visas are allocated randomly to nationals from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous 5 years.
Trump shares the view of many others that this is just ‘political correctness gone mad’ — and he’s probably right about this. The lottery system is unfair to people from other countries who may have more skills or more valid reasons to enter the US, and perhaps these 55,000 visas per year should instead be allocated to refugees so that America can take more, or more people should be allowed to enter on grounds of skills or family.
But, unfortunately, the President doesn’t suggest a different allocation for these visas; he would prefer to see them eradicated and abolished altogether, and with them see the US immigration numbers fall from their current levels of 675,000 per year. And the President also wishes to decrease the number of places for asylees and refugees, and, through the office of the US attorney-general and its current inhabitant, Mr Sessions, send as many of these very well-intentioned and scared people away, and return them to their war-torn countries where they are at such a threat from drugs gangs and are often subjugated by governments.
For fear of focusing too heavily on Central America and Venezuela, let’s switch to the Middle East and Africa. Under Mr Trump’s travel ban of 2017, people from Somalia, Chad, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iran are largely unable to enter the country. The President did this without regard, seemingly, to the fact that 3 of these countries currently have very active conflicts (from which there are many fleeing), and the other 3 countries are in deeply unstable regions of the world. The ban on Chadian nationals was lifted on April 10, 2018, but the other countries still have these restrictions.
With Trump’s various executive orders, presidential proclamations, and Sessions’ rulings on immigration throughout the lifespan of this administration, it is clear that the US is now taking a very new direction with regard to immigration policy. Under previous presidents, of both colours, the rhetoric has always been one of welcoming immigration, but the new reforms to the troubled system have signalled an end to that. The majority of Americans would agree with the President that the system is poor and that change is wholly necessary. The only problem is that, with such an extensive and complicated system, and such a divided country, no-one appears to have a reasonable solution to the problem. Trump’s reforms have been criticised like never before, and are perhaps the most controversial changes to immigration policy ever in American history. But for most, the prospect of having families split up and children placed in what are effectively concentration camps is too much, and the current controversy and situation on the ground has left many eager for reforms to the reforms, for a change in tack, and a switch to an ideology that factors in the humanitarian aspect of immigration and asylum.
So — what next?
The direction and the willingness to stick to the reforms within the current administration makes the aforementioned ‘reforms to the reforms’ unlikely, even though Trump recently signed an executive order stopping the splitting up of families. Trump’s senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller, believes correctly that controversy is perhaps the best way to win votes in elections. That’s why the current debacle rages on — it was manufactured by Stephen Miller with policies which he knew that the left-wing media would take issue with, and, as such, gift an electoral advantage to the ruling powers in the US. The politics reeks.
As such, there will be no great u-turn or policy reversal, as long as the GOP keep control of Congress in the November midterms. The unfortunate thing from the perspective of the Democrats is that, as per Miller’s theories, the controversy caused by Sessions’ ruling and current line of the administration is only going to help them in elections. The USA is such a divided nation that extreme policies appeal the most to the extreme voters and their beliefs. As such, as long as Trump keeps up the political controversy, the GOP will retain and strengthen their grip on power, making them more powerful and confident when passing such incendiary laws through Congress.
Perhaps, though, the Democrats will win the midterm elections. In this eventuality, there are two possible ways that the American political landscape could develop. One is that Trump will be stifled by a Democratic Congress as Obama was for much of his Presidency, and, as such, will be forced to pass through reasonable, centre-ground reforms to immigration. The other, which cannot be ruled out given the fact that the President is currently Donald Trump, is that communications between the two sides will completely break down, and neither side will be able to push through anything meaningful. While the former is the best outcome for the country, the latter is possibly the worst. Unfortunately, a huge Democrat-Republican compromise of this kind is unlikely, and so the country is likely to receive poor and ill-thought out immigration policy for many years to come, regardless of who is in charge of the US.