Kevin McAleenan, the new acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, abruptly assumed office in April because his predecessor reportedly wasn’t tough enough for President Trump. Ironically, McAleenan claims that “you can be tough and compassionate at the same time.” But actions speak louder than words.
Don’t be fooled, McAleenan does not represent a new leaf. He is deeply implicated in many horrors over the last two and a half years. He recommended, and refuses to apologize for, family separations. He led Customs and Border Protection during the Muslim ban and oversaw the agency when two children died in its custody, toddlers were teargassed, and families were held for days in the dirt under a bridge. He stayed silent when Border Patrol abetted militias. No matter his job title, he serves and leads in an administration ideologically committed to dehumanizing immigrants — and that regrettably remains unchanged.
McAleenan and the rest of the administration are doubling down on an overarching deterrence through cruelty approach. At a time when Trump is misappropriating funds from defense and other accounts for his wall, they have asked Congress for billions more in "emergency" detention and enforcement money. The facts at our border require humanitarian, not draconian, responses. A wall, even with a “large gate,” is nothing but a political facade to capitalize on racism and fear while hurting border communities.
Personnel changes are meaningless without changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s anti-immigrant, and frequently illegal, policies. The administration and the department are as dedicated as ever to its campaign of distorting the realities at the border to justify slamming America’s door on asylum seekers.
We’ve sadly come to expect statistical spin and misleading political rhetoric from DHS and politicians like Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, who has a noted history of misleading statements about immigration. He recently went to El Paso and said: “It was amazing to me — when I talked to people, not one of them claimed credible fear or that they were fleeing persecution.” But when misinformation and DHS’ own misrepresentations are penetrating even the New York Times opinion page, a reset is warranted.
First, walls don’t work — and they never have. They only serve to damage our borderlands and engender xenophobia. As research has shown, they result in border residents having their property confiscated, endangered species disappearing, and migrants being killed when forced into harsher terrain.
Walls don’t contribute to the administration’s aim to unlawfully keep out those seeking safety. Asylum seekers have a right to seek protection no matter how they enter the United States — and border barriers aren’t constructed on the precise line separating the U.S. from Mexico, meaning asylum seekers enter the United States before they even reach any wall. Building more border barriers wastes billions of dollars on pointless and damaging political theatre instead of upholding the law and processing asylum seekers with adequate resources to ensure due process.
Second, there is no security crisis at the southern border, and DHS’s crackdown on asylum seekers has exacerbated, rather than addressed, humanitarian needs. For example, DHS hypocritically tells migrants to present themselves at ports of entry for asylum, then under an unsupportable policy called “metering” makes them wait in dangerous conditions for weeks or months. One family subjected to this policy was kidnapped shortly after, extorted by Mexican authorities, detained for months, and pursued in Mexico by their Central American persecutors, all with a child suffering from a chronic heart condition. Over 13,000 asylum seekers are currently subjected to this illegal policy across the border.
The Trump administration is also returning asylum seekers to Mexico during the pendency of their immigration cases, under the “Remain in Mexico” policy that has been found unlawful by a federal court — but the administration continues to implement. No administration acting in good faith to address a regional refugee challenge would vilify mothers and children fleeing violence, prevent children from applying for protection in their home countries under the Central American Minors (CAM) program, or end programs to reliably supervise families in the U.S. through alternatives to detention. They certainly would not freeze the hiring of immigration judges needed to handle a massive backlog of cases.
The Trump administration may be committed to pushing false narratives to justify its xenophobic and illegal attack on asylum seekers and immigrants. But there is another way.
When policymakers and thought leaders seek real solutions to current border realities, by contrast, simple and smart answers exist. The administration should stop blocking asylum seekers at the border and strengthen regional protection options. DHS should allocate funds to modernize ports of entry and humanely, efficiently process asylum seekers as well as provide community-based alternatives to detention that are proven to ensure attendance at their legal immigration proceedings. As a country, we must prioritize work to address the problems in Central America that cause families to flee, not defund assistance as Trump rashly did last month.
Real solutions exist. Ignoring or countermanding them only further proves this dishonest administration is committed to keeping immigrants out rather than following the law and addressing the reality at our border.