The border is part of me. It represents my roots, my home and my work as a founding member of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit partnering with families in search of loved ones who died or disappeared crossing the border. In this work, I have witnessed the pain caused by immigration policies that attempt to protect the myth of security rather than the reality of human life.
Generally, I would shrug off a comment from Donald Trump, but the game has changed. He has been given a stage and his words have power. It is dangerous when people like Trump use their status to fuel myths, ignorance and hate. So, Mr. Trump, excuse me while I take back the microphone for a moment.
Donald Trump is not innovative or creative. He embodies the same prejudice and ignorance that has dominated the immigration debate for decades. Trump's recent white paper is yet another example of fear mongering, misleading statistics and xenophobic language designed to cement the immigrant in the status of a dangerous Other. If there is one theme that jumps out from his paper, it is this: undocumented immigrants are bad people -- they are bad people not simply because they crossed the border illegally, but because they are thieving, leeching, violent invaders of our American way of life.
To combat this "threat", Trump has proposed a witch-hunt. He is advocating for the forced removal of millions of people who make up families, schools, offices, communities and cities all across the U.S. Trump's plan would destroy lives and cause untold hurt to our country.
I don't believe that anyone wishes to actively separate families or uproot communities. As such, I assume that Trump's support comes from hard-working people who don't like to feel cheated, and, as Trump has repeatedly said, the American people are being cheated. But it is he who is doing the cheating.
Let's take a closer look at the myths he is confusing with fact.
Myth: Immigrants are violent criminals
Trump claims that undocumented immigrants are violent criminals who pose a threat to American lives. In his paper, he recounts with disturbing detail the murder of an elderly woman by an undocumented man, arguing that the "'blood trail' leads straight to Washington."
If this case was designed to be illustrative of undocumented immigrants -- and it was -- then Trump has ignored the data. A study found that crime rates among first-generation immigrants, including the undocumented, are significantly lower than the overall crime rate. Another study concluded that there is no correlation between immigrants and violent crime.
The overwhelming majority of people who come to the U.S. do so for work or to reunite with family. Those who cite data suggesting that a high number of undocumented immigrants are criminals fail to reveal that, for the majority, their sole crime was illegal entry, an act that was only recently criminalized.
Myth: Immigrants are an economic drain on American systems
Trump joins a popular chorus in claiming that undocumented immigrants cheat American taxpayers by using public services that they do not contribute to.
In fact, a recent study found that undocumented immigrants contribute an estimated $11.84 billion a year in income, property and sales taxes at the state and local levels. This tax revenue would increase by $845 million if the U.S. fully enforced President Obama's 2012 and 2014 executive actions.
Myth: Undocumented immigrants could have come here legally
Trump and his peers say that undocumented immigrants should enter the U.S. legally. I agree. In all honesty, is there anyone who thinks people should risk their lives trying to cross the border?
But coming here legally is not as simple as Trump would have us believe. Right now, there are essentially two ways to obtain a visa: if you are the close relative of a permanent legal resident, or if you are seeking work in the U.S. Visas are severely limited and given priority based on country, relation and job type. Most Mexican and Central American citizens do not come close to meeting the necessary requirements. When they do, the wait is extensive. According to the current visa bulletin released by the State Department, a Mexican citizen who is the child of a legal permanent resident would have had to apply by July 15, 1995 in order to obtain a visa today. That is 20 years of waiting.
Myth: Our border is unsecure
Finally, there is the wall -- the one Trump would build on the border using Mexican funds. He and his peers specialize in whipping up hysteria by saying that our border is not secure. Listeners imagine a chaotic landscape flooded with people seeking to hurt us. If I had not grown up in the borderlands, I would confuse this image with reality. This is what scares me the most. For millions of Americans who have no idea what the border is like, this is their reality.
The truth is that a physical wall already exists. It is a series of barriers and fences targeted at the most popular crossing sectors through California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In addition to the physical wall, the U.S. has constructed a less visible, but equally violent virtual barrier consisting of surveillance towers, ground sensors, infrared cameras, assault rifles, helicopters and drones.
The unprecedented militarization of the border has done little to stop undocumented immigration. This is no surprise. As any person who has studied criminal justice will tell you, deterrence is a myth. Deterrence is an appealing sound bite used to justify unnecessarily violent tactics and harsh punishments. In pursuit of this myth, the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is now the largest federal law enforcement agency. This drastic expenditure is yielding diminishing returns.
But the true cost of militarization is the human cost. In the last 17 years, more than 6,330 men, women, and children have died crossing the border, and upwards of 2,500 have disappeared. That is more than 8,000 families and communities across Latin America and the U.S. who have been tangibly and irrevocably hurt by the kinds of policies that Trump wants to expand. I can say without a doubt that if Trump has his way, we will continue to bring bodies in from the desert every day. That blood trail does lead straight back to Washington, Mr. Trump.
Truth: Wrong is wrong
After Donald Trump released his paper on immigration, I read through it ready to disprove each of his claims. As I did so, I felt a sense of futility, wondering if the facts would ever gain as much traction as the lies.
But I also felt that any argument I could make based in fact or data was ultimately a violation of my own morals because every one of my points returned to a single truth: Trump's plan is wrong because it is morally reprehensible. No human being should be treated this way.
That should be the end of the debate.
In the meantime, while immigrants are scapegoated, stigmatized, and reviled, we must continue to state the facts, the data, and the history, again and again until we collectively turn blue in the face. The data is on our side. But we can also stand proudly and with conviction knowing that ours is the right path for one simple reason -- it represents respect for fellow human beings, and that is always the strongest criticism in opposition to ignorance and hate.