They Have a Legal Right / by Karie Luidens


To summarize the dozen-odd news articles I’ve quoted in the last few days:

Violence and poverty in Central America have driven thousands of people to leave their homes and travel north through Mexico toward the United States’ southern border in the hope of taking refuge in a land of opportunity.

Because the journey is difficult and dangerous, many of these people have sought to protect themselves and each other by joining together in large “caravans.”

They have a legal right to approach ports of entry and apply for asylum, or to apply for asylum once they’re on U.S. land even if they crossed the border illegally.

The gradual approach of these “caravans” became a political flash point in October, when Trump and Republican candidates seized on them as a visually dramatic example of migration. Despite the fact that these large groups included mostly poor, desperate families hoping to find a better life here through legal processes, politicians repeatedly described them as an “invading force,” possibly riddled with criminals or terrorists, whose plans to “amass” at the border posed an existential threat to the U.S.

In the buildup to the midterm elections on November 6, the Trump administration used that fearmongering rhetoric to justify sending thousands of troops to various points along the U.S.-Mexico border in California, Arizona, and Texas, where they set up the same sort of costly camps they’d use in a conflict zone.

Many people think “deploying troops” makes Trump sound tough on border security. But the fact is, there is no invading force for our military to engage in combat. By law, troops are prohibited from performing law enforcement on U.S. soil, which means they’re not permitted to apprehend, arrest, or otherwise engage with people who cross the border. Instead, their activity is limited to providing basic logistical assistance to the Border Patrol.

The vast majority of these people who’ve crossed from Mexico into the U.S. since October have either done so at legal ports of entry, or in remote areas where they deliberately, promptly turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Again, regardless of how they enter the country, once they’re in the U.S. they have a legal right to apply for asylum, per both U.S. and international law.

I think it’s pretty clear by now that I believe sending troops to the U.S.-Mexico border is a pointless, expensive stunt. We should be withdrawing the 2,000+ soldiers and marines who are still camping there, not sending 2,000+ more to join them in the coming months.

As for building a wall? I can understand that the people who live in New Mexico’s Bootheel are frightened or frustrated by the recent increase in large migrant groups crossing into their region, but I disagree with the kneejerk reaction that a big solid wall would solve their problems. Rather, I respect the analysis of their Congresswoman, Rep. Torres Small, who explained that different types of security are appropriate in different areas to detect and intercept traffickers without scarring the landscape and stranding asylum seekers.

Drug smuggling, human trafficking—these are real problems. Open borders don’t make sense to me. So, sure, we need border security.

But the blunt, simplistic approach of deploying troops and building walls doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop criminal enterprises, who find far more effective ways to subvert border security through tunnels and trucks. It doesn’t stop would-be migrants, who have already traveled all this way and are desperate enough to reach U.S. soil wherever and however they can.

And militarizing the border with troops and walls isn’t just an ineffective waste of taxpayer dollars, it contributes to a warped vision of the borderlands as a war zone, and of people who want to immigrate as a dangerous threat to the United States.

They’re not. They’re human beings, with fears and dreams, who have left the lives they knew and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles just to get here. They’ve come not because they want to harm the United States, but because they want to join us here. Like the most patriotic American citizens, they see the U.S. as a place of hope and possibility—a place where they can find work and make a home, and where their children can finally be safe and healthy.

And—no matter what the politicians say to drum up support with their base—no matter how much concertina wire our military strings up—no matter what kind of wall or fence everyone’s haggling over right now in Washington—I cannot say it enough: they have a legal right to seek asylum here.