A Blow to the Soul
A generation of innocents is going to grow up traumatized because of America’s immigration laws.
Donald Trump has a heart full of fear. The world terrifies him. It’s not just the terror threat he overstates or his overt dread of facts, science, or democratic processes.
No, Trump also apparently fears schoolchildren in sunny American suburbs — immigrants and refugees often left with nothing but the scars of war. We know this because he has prioritized turning the might of the most powerful government in the world against these innocents. Rather than addressing the threats posed by an ill-intentioned Russian government or following up on his tough talk about a rising China, the new president has introduced programs and protocols that will take a terrible toll on children all over the country.
Trump’s signature action as president to date has been his effort to close American borders to Muslims (including refugees) and to escalate the deportation of undocumented residents from the United States. This latter effort largely targets Mexicans and includes new directives that make it easier to deport almost anyone found without proper documentation. He has also made commitments to hire new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, to build new detention facilities, and, apparently, to fight with the courts about his latitude to do so.
The president himself, in an unguarded moment (of which he has many), described the effort as a “military operation.” The White House walked that language back, probably after his team reminded him of the Posse Comitatus Act, a federal statute enacted in 1878 that makes it illegal to conduct military operations on U.S. soil. But his intent was and is clear: to wage a war against immigrants and their families. So far, these policies have targeted not only those immigrants who are here illegally, but visa holders from countries that he asserts pose a national security threat (without foundation or support from his own Department of Homeland Security). The ripple effect extends beyond to families and loved ones who have been shaken by his policies.
In response to the onslaught of criticism both here and abroad, the White House has argued that it is only going after dangerous criminals (aka “bad hombres”). But we know better.
Some Trump supporters have been quick to point out that Barack Obama also ramped up deportations during his presidency. (He did, removing more people in his first term than George W. Bush did in eight years, and certainly not to his credit.) But the number of people being deported or detained is not the only variable that matters in this equation.
The recent shift in American attitudes toward immigrants has already had a profoundly negative effect on the U.S. economy. The first reports on tourism issued since Trump took office suggest that bookings to the United States have declined by 6.5 percent in 2017, tourism from places like the targeted Muslim countries has fallen 80 percent, and flight searches to key U.S. destinations like New York; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Florida, have fallen between 30 and 60 percent.
When you consider that foreign visitors spend up to $221 billion in the United States annually and that the U.S. tourism industry supported more than 7.5 million jobs as of 2015, this kind of trend is going to produce an economic hole that will make it hard for Trump to fulfill his grandiose job creation promises. It’s likely these numbers will get worse as stories of harassment at the border and in airports continue. Consider the impact if the vast flow of tourists we see from Mexico each year were to dissipate drastically: In 2015, nearly 20 million people visited the United States from Mexico.
But these shortsighted policies will have a much higher cost. Over the past few months, I have visited schools and community centers in U.S. cities along the border with Mexico, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast and towns where immigrant populations are a vital part of community life. I had the privilege of visiting these schools while traveling with my partner, Carla Dirlikov Canales, who has engaged with these communities as part of the work she does for her not-for-profit The Canales Project and the Turnaround Arts program that has been part of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Both programs seek to use the arts to help children in at-risk communities.
In many ways, these places are typical and the children are — as children tend to be — innocent, playful, hard at work on the tasks in front of them. But these classrooms are also extraordinary. Ask for a show of hands and you will find most speak a language other than English at home. In one California classroom I visited, there were Mexicans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, New Zealanders, Afghans, and Iranians. These kids are educating one another about the rest of the world and about America.
But speak to administrators and faculty and the longer and larger costs of Trump’s immigration policies come into sharper view. They will tell you of children who kneel before class to pray that their parents will still be home when school ends; of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union briefing a class of third-graders on how to assume adult responsibilities if their parents or older siblings are suddenly taken away; of countless families blacking out the windows of their homes; of kids being told never to answer the phone or the door. One teacher explained how mothers have established code language. A text that reads: “The trees are tall on Main Street” means that ICE has been seen on Main Street.
At one school on the West Coast where the compassionate and courageous faculty was rising to the challenge of running an elementary school while counseling against trauma and offering legal advice, the estimate is that 80 to 90 percent of the families within this school community contain a member at risk in the current environment due to their immigration status.
The United States, much like other countries reeling from the current epidemic of ethno-nationalism that blames “the other” rather than rise to the real challenges of our times, is at a moment of reckoning. Our fearful president and his partners in pusillanimity have through a foul alchemy transformed their anxieties about a world they don’t well understand into a reign of terror against innocent populations and others who have been dealt a cruel hand by circumstance. The result does not make America safer, nor does it make us “great again.”
But from the view I had in those classrooms, I am confident that the greatness and resilience of America will be preserved and made manifest by those this president is targeting — the children who, regardless of where they are from, represent what is best about our country and most promising about our future.
A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration