By Alex Millones '24; Image by Loren Elliott / Reuters
Illegal immigration is a hot button issue in the United States. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a politician who doesn’t speak about the issue or even an American without thoughts on illegal immigration. The conversation around illegal immigration has grown even more prominently since the republican party pushed for a border wall with Mexico and with the increase of hateful rhetoric against migrants from Central America. Presently with the Biden administration, efforts are being made to put new policy into place surrounding migrants. One example of this is to remove children from detention centers and reunite them with their families.
Migration, and specifically illegal immigration from Central America, is not something which is likely to stop anytime soon. Factors out of the control of migrants force them to attempt the journey to the United States, leaving everything behind and risking their lives. These factors can include anything from the effects of climate change on farming, to gang violence, to extreme poverty. Whatever the reason, people in Central America make the desperate decision to try and cross the border. This is not a decision that is made lightly. Which family members cross the border, where they cross, and who they know who already lives in the States are essential considerations. Once a migrant arrives at the border or enters the country illegally, U.S policy comes into play. U.S policy determines who stays and who goes and much much more.
It is not only important to consider what policy looks like, but what shapes the way we go about making that policy and how misunderstandings about the migration experience can lead to gaping holes in policy.
What is policy? Well, it’s essentially a set of actions an individual or group undertakes in response to other actions or events. This is of course a very scaled back definition but stick with me here. To put it more mathematically, if X happens, then I do Y. The U.S government approaches its border policy the same way. If an illegal immigrant shows up, then they get deported. If you re-read the previous sentence you will notice the word “illegal” in front of the word “migrant”. “Illegal” refers to the breach in the U.S policy of entering the country without permission. The word “illegal” in the term “illegal immigrant” puts an extremely negative label on a person or group of people who are not “illegal” people. Sure they are breaking laws and policies, which is clearly wrong, but the word “illegal” taints their identities in an unnecessary way. My point is, terms have power, and rhetoric has power. If we give labels such as “illegal” out so easily, how are migrants ever going to be viewed as anything else, as simply people? Imagine walking into an interview for a big job, and the words “bad employee” are placed before your name on the interviewer’s paper. Of course they are going to fixate on that and not consider you as a person. It’s a simple concept, but how we label people influences how we want to treat them, and therefore influences border policy. I suggest that before moving forwards with policy, we must consider how we refer to the subjects of the policy.
Besides terminology, what else influences and shapes all kinds of illegal immigration policy? Well, another key factor which influences the process is what American policy and law makers believe about migrants and their experiences. I won’t go over common negative stereotypes associated with migrants from Central America, those are easy enough to find these days. What isn’t as easy to find, is information regarding what migrants think about the U.S, and what happens if they don’t make it and are deported from either the border or from within the U.S.
Working with Migration Encounters, a collaborative project which uses interviews with immigrants from Mexico to learn more about their experience and amplify their voices, I have learned about two major misconceptions about migrants. The first is that many Americans overestimate how great the United States seems to migrants. For the vast majority of migrants interviewed, they did not believe “the streets were paved with gold” version of America. Instead, it was cautious optimism about better educational or work opportunities. Migrants do not come to the United States full of patriotic desire. It’s more like: At the moment, the U.S is probably a little safer for me and my family. Many migrants do not want to stay and live in the U.S permanently. If they could, they would stay for a little while with the hope of reaching economic stability, and then head back to Mexico. The idea that the U.S is an ideal place to live, and that all migrants want to put down new roots in the U.S, influences how policy makers approach their policy.
The second factor is less of a misconception and more of a lack of knowledge. Once a migrant is deported back to Mexico then what happens to them? Life back in Mexico is not the same for a person returning from the U.S as it was before. People in Mexico don’t look kindly upon returning migrants. They are often not offered the same opportunities as Mexicans who did not try to migrate. Many of the interviewed individuals who were deported lived most of their lives in the U.S, so their Spanish is not very good and they have little connection with Mexico. There is no assistance from the Mexican government for deportees from the U.S. Navigating a return to Mexico can be just as difficult if not more difficult than being considered “illegal” in the U.S. If policy makers stopped to consider more in depth what it means to actually deport somebody to Mexico, then their policy towards migrants would likely change.
It is my opinion that there are several issues that need to be addressed before any kind of policy surrounding illegal migration is made. The first is the very terminology we are using to describe migration. The terms “illegal immigrants” and “detention centers” bias policy makers’ perspectives before they even get started on their work. Misconceptions such as the fact that migrants are in love with the U.S and want to stay permanently need to be exposed. Many people do not know what happens to migrants after they are deported, especially if it is a person who has lived a majority of their life in the U.S. These key factors need to be addressed and absorbed before policy makers even start to shape their policy on illegal immigration at the U.S border. This is exactly why Migration Encounters is a necessary project. Besides exposing stories to everyday Americans, Migration Encounters can inform policy. But more importantly, it can advise on what to do and learn before policies are made, so that bias and misconceptions don’t leak their way into the process and render the policies, however well intentioned, useless to all.