Last week, U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came out in favor of a “path to citizenship” for immigrants, prompting one of her Republican rivals to criticize her support for “illegal amnesty” that he saw as “unfair to hard-working Americans.”
And so begins what will be more than a year of bitter name-calling and arguing over immigration policy leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
Immigration has long been a divisive issue in the U.S., one that often devolves into extremist attitudes backed by ignorant and borderline racist rhetoric. Politicians often frame the issue in terms of the impact on U.S. citizens, suggesting that undocumented immigrants (especially those from Central and South America) hurt the economy and put an unfair financial burden on the U.S. and its residents.
The dehumanizing nature of the conversation often obscures the harsh truths about why millions of people risk their lives to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many people north of the border are likely unaware of the extreme violence and devastating conditions that cause people to flee their countries in search of safety and stability in the U.S.
Amnesty International notes that politicians, media personalities, and public officials often use migrant workers at scapegoats, downplaying their attributes and the potential economic benefits of a robust immigration program:
“Migrants are often scapegoated by politicians or the media as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘gate-crashers’ – even ‘invaders’ – who exploit host countries’ generosity. This creates the impression that migrants have no rights at all, and leads to racism and discrimination. …
According to the World Bank, international migration is good because workers can move to places where they are most productive. And the money migrants send home to developing countries (known as ‘remittances’) is worth three times more than what governments spend on development aid – an estimated US$404 billion in 2013.”
The conservative media in particular is guilty of using sensationalist, emotional headlines to about immigrants. Last year, the National Review, a prominent conservative outlet, referred to immigrants as “criminal aliens.” The Washington Examiner stirred anti-immigration ire with a headline declaring that President Barack Obama had sanctioned the release of immigrant murderers and drunk drivers.
Too often, prominent figures seem to lump all migrants together, when important distinctions should be made when it comes to migrant workers, refugees, and asylum-seekers. In 2014, the U.S. saw a surge in unaccompanied children trying to cross the border, many of them from poor and violence-ridden parts of the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
As this Council on Foreign Relations piece describes in detail, the immigration system was stretched to capacity trying to handle the increased numbers of migrant children and asylum-seekers. Politicization of the issue doesn’t help, and while no one seems quite sure how best to proceed on immigration, smugglers — also known as coyotes — continue taking advantage of desperate families and cracks in the system.
A chance for asylum
In order to form an educated opinion on immigration policy ahead of the next election, U.S. citizens and politicians need to understand what’s at stake for many of the people who brave what is often a treacherous journey. Many arrive as asylum-seekers, which Amnesty International defines as “someone who has left their country in search of international protection, but is yet to be recognized as a refugee.”
Asylum-seekers must tell officials that they are making an asylum claim when they arrive in the U.S., then go through a legal process that involves a credible fear interview to determine whether or not their case will be heard.
Immigration lawyer Angela Williams said it’s important to distinguish between migrant workers seeking economic opportunities and people who have been traumatized by violence and sexual assault.
“Immigration and people showing up at our borders seeking sanctuary are two different things,” Williams said. Just because a person doesn’t receive asylum, that doesn’t mean that a threat doesn’t exist, she added.
“Even if they don’t end up having a successful asylum claim doesn’t mean they aren’t asylum-seekers,” Williams said. “Asylum cases are very difficult to prove and win. … By and large, people show up at the borders because they were fleeing something horrible.”
A more nuanced discussion of immigration and humanitarian crises in Central America is desperately needed in the U.S. As presidential candidates play politics and vie for the White House, the rhetoric will become more nationalistic and extreme, even as current policies, or lack thereof, have proven inadequate as a humane response to people seeking safety or reconnection with their families in the U.S.