The War Against Immigrants

Basil Wilson's picture

As the South Carolina Legislature was magnanimously burying in part the ominous heritage of the Confederate flag, segments of the Republican Party were opening a new front in racial and ethnic intolerance.  Donald Trump is leading the pack of galloping wild horses but the Republican Party from the 1960s has attracted the more racist and xenophobic elements of American society.

The war on immigrants is an example of how the public discourse can shift in a jiffy.  Not too long ago, both in the Senate and in the House, the preoccupation was in jettisoning the Affordable Care Act.  That was the mantra of Republicans of all stripes.  No alternative legislation to “Obamacare” was ever presented.  But like a lynch mob swarming around the suspect, there were no questions asked, just the rush to judgment.

The obsession to repeal the Affordable Care Act subsequently took a back seat to the beheadings of ISIS and the extent to which ISIS constituted a threat to America’s national security.  All the aspiring Presidential candidates “chorused” the need for a more muscular American foreign policy, some hinting of the need to re-introduce en masse American ground troops.

The conflict in the Middle East dramatically illustrates the complexity of world events. America’s major concern in the Middle East is the fear of terrorism.  But the religious fanatics on the ground in the Middle East are locked into a Shiite/Sunni religious death struggle.  How America’s national security interest fits into that dialectic requires a sophisticated analysis often beyond the intellectual capacity of conventional politicians “schooled” in simplistic platitudes.

The Affordable Care Act and the terror of ISIS have not gone away, merely faded into the background temporarily.  Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party and with nasty, ill-thought out positions has pushed the issue of legal and illegal immigration to the center stage of the Presidential debate.

What is not abundantly clear is that the United States from the 1990s had long since declared a war on immigrants.  In 1996 and thereafter, Congress passed legislation that led to an exponential increase in the budget of the Department of Homeland Security as it was given new responsibilities for apprehending, detaining and deporting those who sought to re-enter America illegally and to “cuff” and remove those who were convicted of an aggravated felony and were resident aliens.

In 2005, Congress passed the Community Security Act and that enabled the giant computer data-set of the Department of Homeland Security to interface with the national prison system and police departments throughout the United States.

The United States Congress had opened another war front.  The war on drugs was instrumental in “fueling” mass incarceration.  America’s prisons had approximately less than 200,000 prisoners in 1970 and by the twenty-first century, the American prison system had approximately 1.4 million people under custody, another 700,000 in jails and millions on probation and parole.  This record in mass incarceration ensured that the affluent United States of America led the world in people who were incarcerated per 100,000.

The war on immigrants was more a stealth war.  It didn’t get the publicity of the war on drugs but it contributed handsomely to increasing the number of the incarcerated confined in federal prisons.

Much of the illegal aliens who cross America’s borders do so at different points in the south-east border with Mexico.  The Border Patrol in the early 1990s was approximately 10,000.  With the stepped up war of interdiction, the Border Patrol has been increased to 20,000.

Traditionally, folks who crossed illegally were summarily returned to Mexico.  In recent years, the federal government through Congressional legislation has made re-entry crossing a criminal offence.  These adventurers are now tried in federal court and on the average given sentences of two years.  The other punitive measure is that they can be removed and returned in remote places in the Mexican interior.  In 1992, there were 36,564 illegal immigrants sentenced in federal courts.  By 2012 that figure had ballooned to 75,867. The Border Patrol budget increased from $363 million in 1993 to $3.5 billion in 2013.

From the 1996 Immigration Reform and Responsibilities Act not only are illegal aliens deported after serving time for crimes committed but resident aliens who commit what is defined as an “aggravated felony” are also subject to deportation.  In California, three strikes and you are given a life sentence.  For a resident alien, one strike and you are out.  ICE does not play American baseball.

The Presidential aspirants are attempting to make illegal immigration an issue long after Congress adopted draconian measures to fortify America’s iron curtain.  It is ironic that the Republican right and the Democratic left are coming to common ground in stepping back from mass incarceration which has been cripplingly costly to the federal and state governments.  Yet the Congress adopted and provided funds for the expansion of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Immigration agencies have become entangled in the nation’s criminal justice complex.

The war on immigrants will suffer the same fate as the war on drugs.  It will entail enormous expenditures and fail to achieve the stated objectives of sealing the border.  The dumbing-down of the public discourse whether it is a debate on the Affordable Care Act or American foreign policy in the Middle East or the influx of Mexican immigrant make it easy for demagogues to establish traction even though there is no relationship of the debate to the reality.  In 2012, the Republicans ran a rich man for President who had no understanding of the real world.  And another rich man has embarked on another quest to whiten the White House.  His fate will be similar to the fate of the 2012 nominee.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: