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Immigration

Will People Still Care When it’s No Longer Trump Doing It?

It is wrong to assume that we're voting for a Biden administration that won't just revert back to an immigration status quo.

President Donald Trump signs a plaque on the U.S. border for the 200th mile of new border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma, Ariz.
Photo via The White House/Flickr

On Tuesday, NBC reported that the parents of nearly 550 children separated from them during a 2017 pilot program of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” family separation policy cannot be found.

Amid the pandemic, U.S. migrants rights group Justice in Motion has restarted physical searches for the parents, according to KQED, coordinating searches in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico.

These are not the same children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s systematic family separation policy, but a different group of parents and children who served as test subjects for the policy and were separated the year prior. Two-thirds of the parents separated from their children during this time were deported without them, according to the NBC report, while most of the parents in the 2018 group stayed in U.S. immigration custody.

To little surprise, the administration did a poor job of ensuring they’d be able to reunite these families. From KQED reporters Michelle Wiley and Adriana Morga, who, as was noted on Tuesday, first wrote about the search for the missing parents nearly a month ago (emphasis mine):

… In October 2019, they [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General] reported that an additional 1,556 children had been separated between July 1, 2017 — when separations reportedly began in El Paso — and June 25, 2018, the day before the judge’s original injunction.

The Trump administration kept few records of where these families went and how to get ahold of them. And advocates say the last known contact information for many is outdated or inaccurate. Nearly all of the 2,814 children from the original 2018 tally have been reunited with their parents. But as for the search for the other 1,556 children, advocates had reached the parents of 438 kids by phone or mail as of mid-August, and more than 100 others were located through outreach in Central America.

This pain this country has inflicted upon vulnerable people is horrific and disgusting, and this is just one of the many ways that the Trump administration’s migration policies were designed, by a white nationalist, to harm people. They wanted to punish Black and brown people who weren’t born here for daring to live here, or work here, or go to school here, or leave countries devastated by natural disasters or civil war. This administration should be held accountable, even though it probably won’t be.

I think many rational people look at the last four years and see that and understand that, and feel activated to participate in electoral politics (regardless of whether the electoral college will allow their vote to “count,” per se) because they want that pain to stop.

I see this in the earnest replies to NBC journalist Jacob Soboroff’s tweets about his reporting:

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with channeling this outrage into action, but it is wrong to assume that we’re voting for a Biden administration that won’t just revert back to a status quo that swaps extremist immigration policy for “polite” and “fair” ICE arrests and detentions and “justified” family separations and deportations. Under previous administrations, I’ve had extended family die or remain separated from one another while waiting to be allowed to live in the U.S., and this is the way things will stay under an administration that doesn’t care to change that reality.

It’s wrong to assume that a Biden administration, despite Joe Biden’s attempt at reckoning with the Obama administration record of mass deportations, will go beyond the effort to reunify families and un-ban Muslims and reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (After all, Biden is the person who told someone challenging him about his immigration record to vote for Trump.) This is exactly what his immigration plans tell us — no for-profit detention centers, but keeping the overall detention system in place. Giving certain people in the U.S. under Temporary Protected a pathway to citizenship, but also only via legislation. Keeping ICE around, but making it nicer. Ending the family separation, but only the way that Trump did it.

Biden doesn’t want to do more than this, but neither do the people who think that immigration horror stories will be over under a Biden administration. They just want people to stop suffering in a way that makes the U.S. look bad. Or in the way that makes our country look like we hate brown children, like we’re fine with abusing the most helpless and sympathetic of immigrants.

And once Biden is in office, these same people will exhale and thank their god that balance has been restored to the universe. The nice people will now be in charge of detaining and stealing the labor of and deporting immigrants instead of the bad people. These people have already started wondering what they’re going to tweet about once Biden is in office. They’ve already started looking for brunch spots with covered outdoor patios.

Things will not systemically improve for marginalized people under a Biden administration. That is not an explicit argument against voting for Joe Biden (though reasonably, for many people, it is), and certainly not for voting for Donald Trump, under whom marginalized people have suffered greatly. But electing Joe Biden will not stop the kind of suffering that goes unseen—the kind that immigration reporters have a hard time getting people to care about, because it doesn’t involve children, or mothers, or hasn’t been picked up by a mainstream news outlet. I keep up with the work of many immigration reporters who I followed during my time reporting on immigration a few years ago. Very few of them work at a mainstream publication, and rarely do mainstream publications that crib their reporting give their work the credit it deserves.

And when I look at this piece from NBC and the outrage this development has rightfully garnered, all I can wonder is whether we’ll see the same kind of mainstream attention to the people wrongfully harmed by a Biden administration’s immigration policy, and if the kind of people who were so upset during the Trump years will even care.