When Hope College professor Holly DeVivo’s mother left for the Mexican Consulate one morning, she hoped that she might finally be able to get help achieving permanent resident status in the United States. Instead, she missed her exit and ended up at the Canadian border, where she was arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. Since U.S. laws don’t guarantee an attorney for immigrants facing deportationn and the family couldn’t afford to hire an immigration lawyer, DeVivo acted as her mother’s legal representation. Seven years and thousands of dollars later, DeVivo’s mother was given relief from deportation and was granted Lawful Permanent Resident status. As DeVivo helped her mother navigate the complexities of deportation proceedings, she got a personal look at the U.S. immigration system. In this critical moment when President Trump has declared a crisis at the southern border, DeVivo draws on her personal experience to help explain the realities of our current immigration situation.
Citing a national security risk at the southern border, President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, Feb. 15, with the intent to divert billions of dollars for the construction of his long-promised wall. Trump’s decision followed the approval of a spending bill that denied him the full border protection funding he’d fought with Congress to secure since the beginning of the year, a political battle that led to a month-long government shutdown. The Democratic-majority House voted on Feb. 26 to block Trump’s emergency declaration, but the Republican-led Senate won’t vote on the issue until later this month. In insisting on the need for a border wall, Trump has frequently pointed to caravans of Central-American migrants and to an alleged flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. as evidence of the need for heightened border protections. So is there an immigration crisis? Why are Central Americans approaching the border in such large numbers, and how did the region become so violent and economically unstable in the first place?
Answering these questions is key to understanding the background of our current circumstances and to discerning the best immigration policy moving forward. The U.S. has a long history of interference in Central American politics, contributing to the ongoing instability that has caused thousands of migrants to flee violence in their home countries. “As Americans, we tend to forget that our foreign policy has a direct impact on the reasons why Central Americans are coming here,” says DeVivo. Reacting to the perceived communist threat of left-wing leadership in the region, the U.S. government intervened to change regimes in Latin America at least forty times over the last century, according to Columbia University historian John H. Coatsworth. The governments that the U.S. installed and backed in these countries often turned out to be brutally oppressive dictatorships that would draw on their American military training and resources to commit atrocities.
One of the most disastrous of these interventions took place in Guatemala, where the American Central Intelligence Agency supported the Guatemalan forces that killed over 200,000 people, engaged in horrific human rights abuses and committed acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayans. Although President Clinton apologized for America’s role in Guatemala, the consequences of the Central American conflict, which the U.S. exacerbated by supporting dictators during the Cold War, is tied to the violence the region experiences today. For many of the migrants currently headed for the U.S. border, this violence is what drove them to to seek refuge.
What Americans often don’t realize is that the migrants who are asylum seekers are pursuing the only course of action available to them under U.S. and international law by approaching a U.S. port of entry. DeVivo explained that to request refugee status in the U.S., an asylum seeker must be on American soil or at a registered UN refugee camp. Since there are no UN refugee camps in their countries of origin, the migrants in these caravans have no other way to make their petition except to come to the U.S. “To say they must ‘do things the right way’ is disingenuous because they are, in fact, doing what they are legally required to do when they come to the border,” said DeVivo.
Of course, not all Mexican and Central American immigrants are coming to the U.S. to seek refugee status. Plenty come to escape a cycle of poverty perpetuated by violence and by the fallout of free-trade agreements such as CAFTA-DR, which harmed many Central American economies. flooding markets imported crops and threatening the livelihoods of local farmers. Yet as DeVivo pointed out, most economic migrants aren’t coming to take advantage of social programs. “The fact of the matter is that those who are undocumented do not qualify for anything but the most basic of services,” she said. Additionally, it isn’t simple for most immigrants to wait to achieve legal status. “Most natural-for for most immigrants to wait to achieve legal status. “Most natural-born Americans have very little understanding of just how long, expensive, and time-consuming the current process is, and how legal immigration is all but impossible for the most vulnerable populations,” said DeVivo. The State Department lists a wait time of over twenty years for a visa to become available to Mexican family members of U.S. citizens or green card holders.
DeVivo’s brother Jose RojasMata remembers the frustration of this process and the dangers of his journey to the U.S. He was seven when his mother brought him and his two brothers to America. For three days, the family walked through the desert. He recalled a night spent sleeping in the desert and a robbery by masked men. He also described the years of trying to get citizenship, remembering the many trips back and forth from the consulate in Detroit and the long waits at immigration centers. “After all those years we are still waiting to get our citizenship,” said Rojas-Mata. “It’s sometimes scary because you never know if you’ll be accepted or if a law will change in today’s world. One problem with immigration law in the U.S. that DeVivo has identified through her own personal experience is the inaccessibility of a qualified attorney for most people who attempt to navigate the system. Illegal presence in the U.S. is a civil offense, not a criminal one, so undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings are not guaranteed a right to legal counsel.
Without representation, people seeking to immigrate to or stay in the U.S. don’t get a fair hearing in an immigration court. As DeVivo explains, “Guaranteeing the right to an attorney, especially for those going through the asylum or deportation process, is a crucial step toward ameliorating the racial and socioeconomic prejudices that are prevalent in the current system.” When the Senate votes on whether to override Trump’s emergency declaration in the coming weeks, it’s unlikely that there will be enough Republicans willing to join Democrats in opposing the president.
The measure may pass, but not by a large enough margin to prevent a presidential veto. Some news agencies also predict that the Supreme Court may uphold Trump’s use of his emergency powers in the face of legal challenges that have already emerged in the weeks following his announcement. According to DeVivo, our current immigration debate suffers not just from misguided policy choices but from a failure to acknowledge the humanity of immigrants and asylum seekers.
“This does not mean we do not have a right to maintain our borders, but we also have a responsibility to care for those who come from nations who have not been as blessed as we have, or those who have been negatively impacted by our foreign policy,” said DeVivo, “We are compelled to remember that, above all else, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and must be treated as such.”