A Continent Divided: The Effect of Trump's Immigration Policies
By Kaitlin Musante
His hands and feet shackled, a young boy sat on top of a broken fruit crate on the fork of the freeway. He rested his head in his arms and gazed out at the passing cars with an empty stare as the orange lights of the ICE patrol vehicles flashed in his eyes. Looking down at the broken windows of the overturned caravan that lay beside him, the hope he had had for the future was shattered.
Daniel Varela ’18 looked on at the scene from his family’s Toyota, his heart sinking as he locked eyes with the boy, who he guessed was no older than 14. As he watched the border patrol agents force the boy and 11 other immigrants into the backs of police cars, Varela said that their hopelessness further opened his eyes to the harsh realities of American immigration policies.
“Just seeing that interaction for a brief moment made me feel almost dizzy and unstable,” Varela said. “I can only imagine their fear of the future and the emotional trauma they experienced by having everything they worked for so easily ripped away. It was devastating to witness.”
Varela was in San Diego County traveling back from Mexicali, Mexico, where he visits the dentist each month. For Varela, whose great-grandfather owns land in Mexico, the significantly lower cost and increased healthcare benefits of Mexican dental care provide a solution to skyrocketing prices in Los Angeles. The trip, however, comes at a different cost: crossing the border.
“It’s crazy how easy it is to go from America to Mexico, but coming back into America takes multiple hours,” Varela said. “You have to wait there for a huge chunk of your day, just to verify that you won’t be a delinquent in America and that you have a good reason to come here. It’s such a difficult process, and it’s upsetting to experience that every time I cross.”
Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, discussion of the Mexican border and illegal immigration have shifted to the forefront of foreign policy issues, with Trump promising to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall separating the two countries. In early April, he issued a proclamation directing the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to deploy National Guard troops to the southwest border in an attempt to further combat illegal immigration.
Varela said that he has noticed an increased guard presence at the border in recent months, recalling times from his childhood where he and his grandmother easily crossed back and forth over the border without facing any hostility or questioning from guards. Although only a birth certificate and state-issued photo ID are required to return to America, Varela said he always brings his passport book, passport card, official ID card, school ID card, debit card and birth certificate because he feels the need to prove his citizenship to particularly hostile border patrol agents.
“Even though I am a US citizen, the guards often don’t believe me about who I am,” Varela said. “I have shown them the papers, and they can’t really combat that, but still they try to falsify the truth. The fact that I have to be this defensive in proving my own life when just crossing a border shows the insecurities that people of Latin American descent experience in this era. You’re supposed to welcome people into a country, not tear them apart before they even step in.”
Despite opposition to increased deportation methods from many across the nation, the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas have all offered support to Trump by pledging to send troops to the border.
Former Dona Ana County Treasurer Mary White, who is currently running for the New Mexico House of Representatives, said she felt motivated to enter the political system after finding herself continually discouraged and offended by her state’s reaction to Trump’s policies of alienation. After witnessing a hearing where a handful of illegal immigrants were shuffled into the courtroom, hands bound to their feet, and denied basic due process rights, White said she knew she needed to try to help.
“[The trial] was morally repugnant to see,” White said. “What the U.S. really needs is a comprehensive immigration policy and a policy that includes keeping families together and putting families first. It needs to be humane, and it needs to provide for due process. People’s human rights need to be upheld. We also need to promote economic development in partnership with Mexico so that people can stay in their own country and have the opportunity to provide for their own families.”
White has been able to provide aid to Mexican citizens in the small town of Puerto Palomas, which has suffered economically following Trump’s new policies, through Border Partners, a nonprofit organization that aims to unite people from both sides of the southwest border.
“Immigrants don’t come [from Mexico into the U.S.] anymore,” District President of Puerto Palomas Ramón Rodríguez Prieto said in an interview with New China TV. “Right now, we are trying to [tend] to the economy since some of the businesses have closed and [the lack of immigration] has hit our economy. Crossing the border into the [U.S.,]the neighboring country, has gradually reduced to nothing over the years.”
According to the Center for American Progress, the number of unauthorized immigrants in America is decreasing and more Mexican immigrants are returning home than arriving in the United States. This lack of immigration is negatively impacting American citizens, Karen Nicholas, who immigrated to San Diego County from Mexico City in 1995, said.
“I think that what [Trump] is doing is tempering the economy of a lot of states in the United States,” Nicholas said. “Mexicans feel threatened by the policies that Trump is making, so they are not coming and instead, they are leaving. We have friends who own restaurants here in San Diego, and they cannot get the help that they need because of this, and there are restaurants that are closing and restaurants that are not expanding because of this lack of help. I agree that we need to have borders. We need to have safety. However, this is creating an environment of fear that is eliminating a workforce that is needed for the economy here and creating a lot of hardship.”
Recent funding to replace parts of the border wall in San Diego and increase its strength and height has also fostered a derogatory attitude towards Mexican immigrants in the area, Nicholas said.
“The thing that is affecting San Diego most is the sentiment of hate it has created,” Nicholas said. “Mexicans are afraid to come here, as they feel threatened and attacked and not welcome.”
As a Mexican immigrant, Victoria Steckel ’19 said that she has noticed a tangible increase in racism towards her and her family members following Trump’s election.
“As a man who seems to lack a filter, [Trump] tends to imply that Mexicans are inferior and don’t deserve to be admitted into the country,” Steckel said. “Now, sometimes when I say that I am Mexican in states outside of California, many people assume things about my behavior or seem to have less respect for me and my family. I think there have always been people like this in the world, but this sentiment has increased during his presidency.”
Varela also said that he has noticed that these border controls and immigration policies are not universal and tend to only affect those of Latin American or Middle Eastern descent.
“We aren’t dealing with the Canadian border the same way we are dealing with the Mexican border,” Varela said. “We are targeting one specific group but not others because of institutional racism. That’s just how it is here in America, and that’s disappointing.”
Varela said he feels that America should be more open to people of different ethnicities and backgrounds to gain a more global outlook.
In an attempt to learn more about Mexican culture and the issues surrounding the border, Kat Swander ’19 traveled to Tijuana, Mexico to film a documentary as part of a Digital Storytelling Adventure trip. After meeting with the people directly affected by Trump’s discriminatory words and policies, she said she felt she was able to view the issue from a new perspective.
“As teens, we hear so many things from the media that brush over the root of the problem,” Swander said. “It’s incredibly eye-opening to actually go there and see how it’s truly affecting people. It puts a face to the problem.”
While filming her documentary, Swander spoke to a group of deported veterans, many of whom were promised U.S. citizenship after fighting in the Vietnam War. Once returning home, however, many suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and committed minor misdemeanors, such as jaywalking. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient Mario de la Cruz was one of these men, lost in a country he had never known.
“It’s like somebody coming up to you and telling you, ‘guess what, you are going to the moon in a couple weeks,’” de la Cruz said. “Obviously, you’re going to say, ‘What do you mean I’m going to the moon, I don’t know nothing about the moon.’”
These veterans are not alone in their struggle, however, as many of the young men and women protected by DACA, known as Dreamers, have difficulty adjusting to life in an unknown country.
Carried across the border by his mother at age four, Israel Concha said he had felt like he had been living the American dream until he was caught speeding down a Texas highway. He was arrested and told to prepare to ‘go back to Mexico,' separating him from his wife and unborn son. Bouncing through a series of detention centers and jails, Concha said he fought for his right to stay in America because even the damp floor of a jail cell seemed brighter than the prospect of facing a land he barely knew.
“[Being deported] felt like an American exile because even though I was not born there, I thought that America was my home,” Concha said. “It felt like my own country had turned its back on me. I didn’t want to go to Mexico, as there was so much uncertainty in my future there. I had everything in America; a job, a wife, a son, but I had nothing in Mexico.”
After two years of court hearings and sleepless nights, Concha finally admitted defeat. But when he lost his battle to the American justice system, he also lost faith in the country he had once considered his own, Concha said.
“When I was in school, we would always say the pledge of allegiance,” Concha said. “In the last paragraph, it says, ‘for liberty and justice for all.’ I really believed in my country and its values, and I thought that if I fought for what I wanted, it could happen. After losing the legal battles, all I could think was ‘what liberty, what justice?’”
Now alone in his foreign homeland, Concha said he felt like he had lost everything. This feeling of hopelessness only intensified after he was kidnapped and tortured by a group of paranoid Mexican citizens who wrongly suspected him of conspiring with the American government. Although he escaped, broken but alive, Concha said he once again felt unwanted in a country he had hoped would accept him.
“[Dreamers] are like a different breed,” Concha said. “We aren’t wanted in America because we are immigrants and we are undocumented, but once we come to our birth countries, we don’t understand the system. We aren’t from there either, so where are we from?”
Concha finally found his community in Little LA, which serves as a hub for deported Dreamers and repatriated families that have banded together in the face of tragedy. After speaking with fellow Dreamers and realizing that his struggles were not uncommon, Concha began New Comienzos, a nonprofit organization which aims to help integrate suffering migrants into an unfamiliar culture.
“The Mexican government doesn’t really have programs to help people like me, and I knew I needed to do something to help,” Concha said. “I didn’t have any family here in Mexico. To me, helping others was therapy.”
Since the Trump administration has come into office, the number of immigration arrests has skyrocketed, and the number of Dreamers seeking help from his organization has more than tripled, Concha said.
Despite the increase, Concha said that he remains optimistic for the future of border policies in the coming years. However, for now, while Dreamers still sit chained to crates on the side of the road, torn between two nations, he said that he hopes that the communities he has created in Mexico will allow these deported immigrants to continue to pursue their American dream across the border.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Concha said. “Dreamers don’t have to live in a golden cage, unable to travel the world. As an undocumented immigrant, you are already restricted in so many ways and there is no path to citizenship ahead. Although at first it may be tough, there is hope and there is help. I have faith.”