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A Small Victory in a Long War of Attrition Against Immigrants

The Director of The Fletcher School's Henry J. Leir Institute, Dr. Katrina Burgess examines the "canaries in democracy's coal mine."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently sent shock waves through universities with a new rule that international students would lose their visa status and face deportation if they did not attend at least one in-person class in the fall. This rule was especially disruptive for the Fletcher School. With students from over 100 countries, we had decided - after weeks of careful deliberation - to remain remote as the safest and most equitable way to deliver a world-class education in the midst of a global pandemic. Fortunately, reason prevailed in Washington, DC. Faced with lawsuits from hundreds of college (including Tufts University) and 20 U.S. states (including Massachusetts), ICE rescinded the rule a week later.

This story has a happy ending. Public pressure worked against an ill-conceived policy with a potentially dire impact on our economy, our universities, and public health. We saw a similar result in 2018 when public outrage persuaded the Trump administration to back off its policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

But these are small victories in a long war of attrition waged by the Trump administration against immigrants in this country. Muslim Americans are afraid to visit their families abroad for fear of getting caught up in the so-called Muslim ban. U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants have nightmares about ICE agents taking away their parents. Young professionals brought here as toddlers worry about losing their right to stay under the DACA program. Over 60,000 asylum seekers have been forced to wait for their court hearings in crowded, unsafe conditions in Mexico under the disingenuously named Migration Protection Protocols, or the MPP. Meanwhile, the U.S. immigration bureaucracy keeps issuing new directives– often at the last minute and with vague wording ­– that make it nearly impossible for migrants to make safe, well-informed decisions.

As a Fletcher professor who studies migration in the Americas, I have witnessed, first-hand, the trauma, dislocation, and heartbreak that these policies and tactics are causing. People are suffering. Even worse, their suffering is intentional. As statements by U.S. officials reveal, these human tragedies have been manufactured by an administration intent on deterring migrants from coming to the United States.

This suffering is not "collateral damage" from pursuing some loftier objective. It is part of the plan. And it has accelerated under cover of the pandemic.

Apart from a few tepid efforts to release immigrants from detention centers, the overwhelming response has been to close the remaining avenues for documented immigration, deny personal protective equipment to detainees, double down on deportations despite the risk of spreading COVID-19, and effectively dismantle our already-crippled asylum system. The short-lived visa rule for international students is only the latest and most visible item on this long list of anti-immigrant initiatives.

Anyone familiar with this administration's handling of COVID-19 will find it hard to believe that these policies are driven by public health concerns. The stench of hypocrisy is even stronger when we look more closely at how they have been implemented. Take the MPP. Even after suspending all asylum hearings at the border in March, the Department of Homeland Security continued to require that MPP participants come to the port of entry to get their next court date. Then, in May, DHS abruptly announced that they had to show up at the port of entry one month after their scheduled appointment. Eager not to lose their place and often unaware of the change, hundreds of asylum seekers stood in line on the wrong date, risking their health and that of everyone else at the ports of entry, including border agents. Public health was clearly not served, but asylum seekers had one more reason to give up and return home.

In her new book, "Illegal: How America's Lawless Immigration Regime Threatens Us All," Elizabeth Cohen argues that "non-citizens are canaries in democracy's coal mine" because the excesses of the immigration bureaucracy reveal the dangers to us all of unaccountable, militarized policing. Just look at recent events in Portland, where unidentified agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit are arresting protestors and whisking them away in unmarked vans. These dangers are nothing new for people of color, and democracy's coal mine has long been damaged, but the chorus of canary calls is becoming too loud to ignore. Rather than merely rescuing the canaries, I hope we can use our outrage to fix the coal mine for citizens and non-citizens alike.

The Fletcher School is a good place to start. We have an established track record of taking on complex challenges and offering creative solutions. I propose that we marshall our collective talents and resources to fight back against these dehumanizing policies, recognize and tackle their systemic roots, and work with practitioners to imagine, and then realize, a better way forward.