Originally Published in The New York Times
Jennifer Szalai - July 30, 3030
Amid all the fickle reversals of the last four years, there’s one area where the Trump administration has demonstrated a steady and unrelenting focus: restricting immigration.
There is, of course, the wall — whose mythos looms large, even if the actual structure is less impressive (and less effective) than the president lets on. But if you think of the wall as not so much a physical deterrent to migrants as a symbolic monument to nativist ambitions, President Trump’s implacable devotion to it begins to make sense. The one discernible principle that seems to animate his policymaking has been an unwavering determination to keep foreigners out. Barely two weeks after his inauguration in 2017, he famously announced his travel ban — an executive order so hastily put together that it would undergo numerous challenges and iterations for more than a year until a version of it was upheld with a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court.
Visitors aren’t immigrants, but their treatment is connected. As the lawyer and historian Julia Rose Kraut recounts in her new book, “Threat of Dissent,” there’s a long history of foreigners in the United States being subjected to the vicissitudes of the government’s discretionary powers. Another recent book, “Separated,” by the MSNBC and NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff, shows how the Trump administration implemented a policy that amounted to a humanitarian catastrophe: systematically taking children from their migrant parents at the border. Reading these two books together will give you a sense of how the United States, a country that prides itself on its constitutional protections, also possesses a body of immigration laws that can be weaponized by an executive branch willing to do it.
In “Threat of Dissent,” Kraut writes about what she calls “ideological exclusion” — the effort to block and even deport noncitizens because of their ideas and beliefs. Suspicion of foreigners goes back to the earliest days of the republic. The Alien Friends Act of 1798 allowed the president to detain and deport any noncitizen deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” which at the time was in an undeclared naval war with France.
President John Adams used the Alien Friends Act as an opportunity to refuse entry to a visiting delegation of scholars (“We have had too many French philosophers already”), and to draw up a list of Frenchmen to be deported. One of them had fled the Reign of Terror years before and settled in Philadelphia, opening a bookshop whose customers included Adams himself. Asked why this bookseller was on the list, Adams replied: “Nothing in particular, but he’s too French.”
Kraut traces how different ideologies would be considered intolerably dangerous according to the dominant fears of a given era. Anarchism gave way to communism; communism gave way to Islamic radicalism. Foreigners suspected of unacceptable anti-Americanism included Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene. (Chaplin was so incensed by the ritual humiliations he had to endure at the hands of immigration authorities that after leaving the United States for a European tour he decided not to return.) Even citizenship didn’t always ensure protection. The anarchist Emma Goldman was denaturalized in 1909, and shipped to Revolutionary Russia a decade later.
More recently, in 2019, a 17-year-old Palestinian from Lebanon who was about to begin his freshman year at Harvard was denied entry at the Boston airport; border patrol agents searched his phone and laptop and told him he was “inadmissible” because of social media posts — not by him, but by his friends.
The foreigners in Kraut’s book generally constitute a privileged class — scholars, writers and artists whose ideas (or mere proximity to ideas) have been used against them. The foreigners in Soboroff’s book, by stark contrast, are among the most vulnerable, persecuted for their presence alone. In “Separated,” he describes traveling along the southern border during the early part of the Trump presidency to report on tightening immigration enforcement. All the while, a more horrifying story was starting to take shape.
By the time the homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen put her signature to an official policy of family separation in May 2018, border agents had already been separating asylum seekers from their children since the previous year. This punishment of migrant families was compounded by a process that Soboroff describes as either willfully cruel or cruelly negligent. Record-keeping was so shoddy and inadequate that authorities didn’t properly keep track of which child belonged to whom, making reunification for some families exceedingly complicated, if not impossible.
The statistics that do exist are startling: Since the summer of 2017, Soboroff writes, at least 5,556 children were taken from their parents — the true number is still unknown. The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics called family separation “government-sanctioned child abuse”; the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights called it “torture.” Even though the policy was officially ended after a public outcry in the summer of 2018, separations continued. Migrant parents who are detained at the border with their children have again been presented with an impossible choice: consent to their children being released without them, or stay together in indefinite detention.
“Separated” is structured chronologically, with the narrative of Soboroff’s own discovery of what was happening presented incrementally, highlighting the secrecy and “extraordinary confusion” of the process — and how removed even a journalist like Soboroff was from what was happening on the ground. He also recounts the story of Juan and José, a father and son who fled narco-traffickers in Guatemala in the summer of 2018. José, 14 at the time, was taken from his father at the border. Juan and José would endure 124 days of separation before they were reunited. There was no information about José in his father’s case file, and it would take a social worker to track the father down to a detention facility located 1,500 miles from where the son was being held.
“Nobody warned of the impact on children,” one anonymous official told Soboroff. Given that family separation was adopted as a merciless form of deterrence, this excuse makes no sense. The entire policy was predicated on how traumatic that “impact” promised to be. The subtitle of “Separated” is “Inside an American Tragedy,” but what Soboroff memorably depicts isn’t just tragic but brutal. Any soaring rhetoric about yearning to breathe free has been traded in for the crudest of threats: If you try to come here, just look at what we’re willing to do.