Originally published by The New Yorker
This July, I walked along one of the oldest existing sections of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, on the San Diego side. My companions on this walk were not bad people. They had come to Southern California on a church mission, and their group, of two dozen teen-agers and three adults, had taken the afternoon to go on a walk organized by the Border Angels, a nonprofit that helps immigrants coming across the Mexican border. As the Angels told the visitors about their work—leaving water in the desert for those crossing between the so-called ports of entry, among other things—the visitors nodded in sympathy. Later, as we walked in the scorching sun, the adults in the church mission told me that they had nothing against immigrants; they only wished that they would follow the proper legal procedures. As we talked of the shelters full of aspiring asylum seekers just on the other side of the wall, in Tijuana, and of the overtaxed ports of entry where lines stretched for weeks, they allowed that the laws and procedures may need to be changed. Until then, however, crackdowns, and the wall itself, were inevitable, they said. They had voted for Donald Trump.
On Friday, Trump signed a proclamation that denies the right to ask for asylum to anyone who does not use an official port of entry to cross the southern border. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center immediately joined forces to sue the Administration. The groups claim that the proclamation violates federal law, which recognizes the right of people to seek asylum regardless of where and how they entered the country; it also breaks the law, they say, by circumventing the normal notice-and-comment period. Finally, though the lawsuit doesn’t mention this, the proclamation also contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted and adopted by the U.N., in 1948, and which guarantees ‘the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ ”
The media reported the news of the proclamation uncritically. CNN wrote that the measure will “bar migrants who cross into the US illegally through the southern border from seeking asylum.” The Times referred to “the illegal entry of immigrants across the southern border” in the first line of its story. In fact, there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum, even if, as a matter of practice, people entering outside ports of entry are often charged with misdemeanor offenses. But Trumpian hysteria over the influx of immigrants has served to make the bureaucratic requirement of entering “officially” seem reasonable. “Entry at ports of entry at the southern border allows for orderly processing,” the President’s proclamation says. Before it gets to that calming promise, however, it uses the words “violence,” “crisis,” and “unlawful.” The message is that the people coming to the United States are dangerous, criminal, and, most importantly, undeserving: “Only a fraction of the claimants . . . ultimately qualify for asylum or other protection.”
This story of undeservedness rests on the distinction between refugees and migrants; the latter word has come into particularly wide usage since the so-called caravan became a feature of Trump’s campaigning in advance of the midterm elections. The people coming to the border from Latin America are fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty. Under existing U.S. asylum rules, neither circumstance would entitle them to asylum protection, though the Obama Administration recognized the fear of gang violence as grounds for asylum. But the distinction between the two words is a legal fiction: it asserts that economic hardship is somehow separate from political disenfranchisement and political persecution. Implicit in this claim is the view that economic inequality across nations is somehow natural, and therefore the citizens of wealthier nations have no responsibility to shelter those who are fleeing poverty elsewhere. The distinction between political and economic migrants is relatively new, dating to the second half of the twentieth century. But now that climate change is displacing tens of millions of people, its immorality comes into ever greater relief.
Many arguments have been, and will continue to be, advanced for the distinction between refugee and migrant, as well as for the creation of the ports of entry, for Trump’s proclamation, and even for the border wall itself. All of these arguments are founded on the understanding that free movement of people across borders is undesirable, frightening, and ultimately impossible. As long as this premise goes unchallenged, people who think of themselves as good and compassionate will be able