By Julia Trencher
Since his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump promised to build a border wall to prevent migrants from crossing into the United States. With his days as President coming to an end, Trump’s wall remains unfinished and under legal review by the Supreme Court, unable to continue construction. On his first day in office, Joe Biden could easily halt construction on the wall once and (hopefully) for all, leaving hundreds of miles of the border without a barricade. At CAIR Coalition, we know that keeping the desert free of a physical barrier is far from opening U.S. doors to refugees and asylum seekers.
For decades, U.S. policies have made crossing the border a deadly choice without the need for a physical wall. In 1994, President Clinton created Operation Gatekeeper, increasing the presence of border patrol officers in safer crossing areas, forcing migrants to walk through (and often lose their lives in) the most dangerous areas of the desert. This policy was created to deter and kill people fleeing to the U.S.
During his administration, President Obama increased the number of agents at the border to the highest in U.S. history. This wall of armed humans and helicopters yielded results. In 2014, Obama boasted, “[…] over the past six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half.”
While his predecessors made it physically dangerous and strategically difficult to cross the border, Trump is eliminating forms of legal entry for asylum seekers. Trump’s wall, if anything, is merely a symbol to his supporters of the real damage he has caused immigrants and their families.
In January 2019, Trump implemented a new policy: Migrant Protection Protocol, also known as the “Return to Mexico” policy. Under this policy, border officials deny entry to migrants and force them to stay in Mexico, often for months, while they await their court date. Unaccompanied minors are exempt from the policy, which created the newest and cruelest family separation policy of the Administration: self-separation. Out of desperation, parents stuck in border areas riddled with kidnappings and shootings end up sending their children across the border on their own as “unaccompanied minors,” granting them the legal category necessary to enter.
In my work as a legal services provider for detained children, I have met those kids who walked across the border alone because their family had no other option. The children recount how they saw their parents kidnapped at the border by cartels, how they spent sleepless nights in tent cities riddled with gunshots, and share their hope that their family can one day join them in the U.S.
Since the pandemic started, I hardly hear these stories. One would hope that the policy has been reversed and families can now cross safely together. The disturbing reality is that against international asylum law, the U.S. has not been allowing unaccompanied children across the southern border. In fact, the policy is likely to be further solidified early next year, as the Supreme Court is set to review “Remain In Mexico” alongside their new conservative benchmate.
In March 2020, Trump ordered through the Centers for Disease Control that any person crossing a land border without documents would be expelled to their country of origin, with very few exceptions. From March to September, 399,770 people were turned away from the southern border, many of them children. This is the first time in U.S. history that the Public Health Act is being used for immigration purposes. Because the policy is a re-interpretation of the public health act, and not based on immigration law, it is able to circumvent international asylum protocols.
The policy has become murkier in recent weeks due to an ACLU lawsuit challenging Trump’s order. Stories of unaccompanied children making it across —without being sent back to Mexico or their home country— are coming to the surface. However, these stories are few and far between.
Under a global pandemic, we continue to accept commercial flights and permitting unregulated domestic travel, but we are not allowing five year-olds fleeing violence to find safety in our country. While Trump refuses to implement public measures for people within the U.S., claiming the virus is “totally harmless,” his administration conveniently uses the same virus to keep asylum seekers from safety.
In the end, Trump never even needed a physical wall to prevent people from seeking refuge in the U.S. Compounded with the militarization of the border from his Democrat predecessors, he forced families to separate themselves in the hopes of guaranteeing their children’s safety, and, as his final act, used a global pandemic as an opportunity to violate international asylum law by completely closing the border to asylum seekers.
What happened to Trump’s wall? It’s already complete.
Julia Trencher of @CAIRcoalition is a legal service provider for children in immigration detention.