Operation Faithful Patriot. That was to be the name of our country’s most recent military deployment at the Southern border. The Defense Secretary’s office dropped it on Election day. At the time of writing, policymakers planned to station between 7,000 and 15,000 troops to support border enforcement against a caravan that has reached Tijuana, Mexico, and numbers about 6,000 persons, including children.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limits the U.S. military’s ability to enforce laws within our country. Nevertheless, this operation is but the most recent one—the culmination of a process that has been well underway since the 1980s. After the end of the Cold War, at the border we’ve seen the military used ‘to support’ a drug war and a war against terrorism. Since I was a child, policymakers in Washington, D.C. have declared my community to be a war zone of some kind or another. Border communities had not seen an administration openly declare a de facto war against immigrants and asylum seekers until today, though.
The Trump administration has weaponized the structures and mechanisms that are at the core of our country’s immigration and asylum policies. That is the chilling finding by El Paso’s Hope Border Institute. The authors of the methodologically sound report write:
By effectively nationalizing troubling policies, practices, patterns and a culture of abuse unique to the El Paso Sector, the Trump administration has weaponized border enforcement, immigrant detention and the immigration courts, solidifying an iron triangle of deterrence againstbona fide asylum seekers, forcing them to make the painful choice between deportation and prolonged detention.
I expected two of the report’s findings, but two were particularly disturbing.
The strategy of prevention through deterrence at the border is not new. Policymakers developed it in 1993, during the Clinton administration. They assumed that it is possible to make the journey of immigrants and refugees so deadly—by sealing border cities like El Paso and San Diego to push them to cross through the desert, mountains, and sea—that they will end up deciding against risking it. Migration scholarshave long held that is not the case.
Likewise, the strategy of deterrence through detention is not new. Though it initially attempted a reform, the Obama administration ultimately deepened the government’s reliance on private corporations to operate an increasingly robust immigration detention system. Congress mandates the Department of Homeland Security fill a 34,000 detention-bed quota per day and pay accordingly. As a result, in FY 2017 the industry’s largest contractors earned more than $4 billion.
The report’s finding that the Trump administration is using immigration courts themselves as a deterrence against asylum seekers is disturbing. While legal scholars have critically analyzed the independence of our country’s immigration adjudication structures in years past—immigration courts are not part of the federal judiciary, they operate under the U.S. Attorney General—this is a new development. The degree to which the White House is pressuring immigration judges to systematically deny asylum claims is unprecedented.
Most disturbing, though, is the Trump administration’s decision to coordinate border enforcement, detention, and immigration court proceedings in a way that weaponizes them. That is a dangerous precedent because it allows the government to use the immigration system itself as an enforcement mechanism to preemptively attack asylum seekers, as it were, by making it increasingly difficult to adjudicate their claims impartially, under the law.
The previous findings signal the waning influence of Christian ethical principles on U.S. immigration and asylum policies. That may be the case for two distinct but related reasons.
The first pair of findings suggest that border enforcement and immigration detention have become deeply enmeshed with the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, respectively. Those industries benefit from a broken immigration system and thus they oppose any reform. And yet, some Christian leaders continue framing the immigration debate as having two sides that should find common ground—Democrats favor comprehensive immigration reform and Republicans prioritize border enforcement—when there is a third they may well be ignoring. It is time to pay attention to the important work that Christians are doing to bring their ethical principles to bear on the corporations that make up these industries.
The second pair of findings suggests a more recent problem. I have not found credible reports as to why the White House or the Pentagon settled on Operation Faithful Patriot (rather than Loyal Patriot, for instance). As Ellen Mitchell notes, “The military typically refers to combat missions as operations.” And yet, the operation’s name seems to aptly describe the way President Trump and his base talk about the border and asylum-seekers.
When the Trump administration separated more than 2,300 children from their parents to deter undocumented immigration last Spring, then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a too-common misreading of Romans 13 to justify the government’s brutal actions there. Actions that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then defended by simply stating that “it is very biblical to enforce the law.” When Christians confuse legality and morality it is easy to confuse patriotism and faith. This is dangerous for Christians who are also citizens of such a powerful country.
U.S. Christians are in desperate need of openness towards friendship with immigrants and asylum-seekers, particularly those from Central America. Pursuing greater openness to friendship entails nothing short of personal and social conversion. It entails nothing short of being present with them at the border, inside detention centers, and at the courtrooms. Experience with immigrants and research on Christian immigration ethics have convinced me that justice calls for no less. Our hope for an end to the migrant and asylum-seeker crisis—a crisis precipitated by US policies and intrusion in Central America—rests in a mercy and justice that require faithful presence and friendship.