5 Things To Know About U.S. Immigration Policy

Last week, after a huge public outcry, Donald Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Ending this brutal policy is a victory, but it is a weak palliative for a much larger problem. The southern border of the United States is, and has been for some time, an extremely violent place where human rights are routinely ignored. U.S. immigration policy is radically xenophobic and becoming more radical every day under the Trump administration. Immigration policy has been pushed so far to the right, not just because white supremacy permeates every aspect of the United States government, but also because there is widespread ignorance about these cruel and racist policies and how they are enforced. The following list aims to dispel popular myths and shine a light on the realities of our immigration policy.

1. Your Ancestors Did Not Come Here “Legally”

It’s a common myth that your ancestors came here legally through Ellis Island. White people often make this claim in order to differentiate their family’s history of immigration from current day immigration, but it’s simply not true. During the years Ellis Island operated as a gateway to the United States the categories “legal immigration” and “illegal immigration” did not exist the way they exist today.

The categories of legal and illegal only came about in 1924 when the National Origins Act required immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, to have a visa. Before this the United States essentially had open borders (unless you were Chinese). This was less than 100 years ago. In the time between then and now multiple amnesties have been granted to those who immigrated “illegally”.  The amnesties were granted because millions of European immigrants came to the U.S. after the law made them ineligible to live here. They were “illegal immigrants” and it’s not so unlikely that people claiming their ancestors immigrated legally actually did not.

But the specific example of Ellis Island is an important one. Less than 1% of people who showed up at Ellis Island were turned away. You showed up and you were allowed in. No categories of legal or illegal, just human beings starting a new life in a new country. If it happened then, why can’t it happen now?

2. The Trump Administration Is Breaking International and U.S. Law

Immigrants arriving at the border and turning themselves in are asylum seekers. Under international and U.S. law it is illegal to turn them away or imprison them. To be granted asylum, “seekers must show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from the authorities in their own country”. Asylum seekers require sanctuary from oppression and persecution and have the legal right to seek it in the United States. In fact, they have to arrive in person to apply for asylum. Everything these immigrants are doing is 100% legal.  At one point, asylum seekers were allowed to live in the country while their status was determined, as long as they periodically checked in with the authorities. Currently, these asylum seekers are either being outright turned away at the border or incarcerated in concentration camps, both of which are illegal. The only party breaking the law in this case is the Trump administration.

3. It’s Nearly Impossible To Immigrate To The U.S. Legally, And The Trump Administration is Making it Even Harder

Immigrating to the United States is not an option for a majority of people around the world. Generally, there are only four ways to obtain a visa: Employer-based immigration, family-based immigration, asylum, or the diversity lottery.

Employer-based immigration is only allowed if you meet certain education requirements, have a job lined up with an employer that sponsors you, and that employer cannot find a U.S. citizen to fill the position.

Family-based immigration is subjected to a quota, your sponsoring family members must have an income above the poverty line, and grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor your visa. The entire program is currently under threat as Trump and the GOP malign it as “chain-immigration” that must be ended.

Asylum seekers, as we’ve seen, are being turned away at the border or put in cages.

The Diversity Lottery is literally a lottery. It is based entirely on luck and only a small number of people are selected. The Trump administration is attempting to eliminate the program entirely.

Even people who meet one or all of those requirements often wait for years to obtain a visa. These limited routes to legal immigration leave the majority of people wishing to immigrate to the United States with no option except crossing the border without proper visas.

4. The U.S. Violates Human Rights

Recently a video was released of United States border patrol agents dumping out water that aid groups had left for immigrants crossing through the desert. Dehydration and hunger are used to kill and/or deter immigrants crossing the border. Border Patrol, by setting up checkpoints at and heavily patrolling safer crossing areas, systematically forces people to walk through the most dangerous parts of the desert. Hundreds of men, women, and children die every year attempting to cross through the desert. Many are never identified.

This is one of several brutal methods of deterrence. Separating children from their parents is another, and although the practice has apparently ended, families are still being detained indefinitely in large camps. These blatant human rights violations are being used to send a message to other immigrants: you are not welcome.

Under the Obama administration and Trump administration ICE detention centers have been perpetrated a number of human rights abuses. These detention centers are owned by private companies for profit. The “detention centers” are prisons, even though the inmates that fill it have only committed a misdemeanor (crossing of the border is a misdemeanor offense). Within the walls of these centers prisoners are subjected to verbal abuse, beatings, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, and even forcible ingestion of drugs.

5. United States Imperialism Has Caused A Refugee Crisis

The people crossing the southern border are victims of the United States. They are not leaving their homes, family, and friends voluntarily. The countries they are fleeing from are often poor and dangerous. They are not simply trying to move to a new country, they are desperately attempting to escape their own.

The U.S has spent decades interfering with Latin American politics. It has overthrown governments multiple times, it has funded death squads, it has economically sanctioned various countries, and it has even launched full scale invasions. In the 20th and 21st centuries this violent interference has stemmed from two policies: The War on Drugs and anti-communism.

The War on Drugs has devastated countries such as Mexico and Columbia. Tens of thousands of people are dead in both countries as a direct result. People fleeing from this violence are the ones who end up in our detention centers.

The war against any communist, socialist, and even progressive governments in Latin America has been a long one. In 1954 the United States supported a coup in Guatemala and propped up subsequent right-wing dictators of the country throughout the 80’s, during which a genocide of indigenous people took place alongside massacres and the”disappearing” of dissidents. In the 1980’s the U.S. backed death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador who killed thousands of innocent people and plunge the two countries into brutal civil wars. In 1989 the United States invaded Panama. In 2009 Honduras experienced a coup (backed by the United States) which has led to brutal repression and a dramatic increase in crime and violence. Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world and political activists are assassinated in broad daylight.  The list of direct interventions in Latin America by the United States goes on and on: Panama 1958, 1964, and 1989, Cuba 1961, Dominican Republic 1965-66, Chile 1973, Grenada 1983-84, Bolivia 1987, Venezuela 2002. Indirect intervention such as funding hard-right opposition movements is common as well and erodes democracy in the region.

The modern history of Latin America is a history of U.S. intervention and destabilization. The United States destroys their homes, installs repressive regimes, and institutes cruel economic reforms. These are the reasons people leave their homes. Their lives and the lives of their children are at stake. Refusing them entry to the U.S. and framing them as criminals and parasites is a shameful hypocrisy when it is the actions of the U.S. that have forced them to flee their countries in the first place.


A humane immigration policy would consist of five things: closing down every detention center, granting amnesty to every undocumented immigrant, abolishing ICE, abolishing DHS, and opening our borders. Anything less is violence against a vulnerable population forced to journey to the southern border as a result of United States foreign policy.

Below are the sources for this article and further reading suggestions on the topics of borders and immigration.


A World Without Borders

The Case for Open Borders

Why We Need Open Borders

No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally

Yes, your ancestors probably did come here legally — because ‘illegal’ immigration is less than a century old

Why Don’t They Just Get In Line?

Immigration 101: Why Can’t Immigrants Just “Get Legal”, “Get in Line” and Get Their Papers?

Big Money As Private Immigrant Jails Boom

Six Reasons the Drug War is Disastrous for Latin America

The US war on drugs and its legacy in Latin America

These Harrowing Stories Shed Light on the Rampant Sexual Abuse in Immigrant Detention Centers

Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims

Border crossers, and the desert that claims them

Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election

One Year of Immigration Under Trump

Desperate Asylum-Seekers Are Being Turned Away by U.S. Border Agents Claiming There’s “No Room”

Detained, Then Violated

Private Prison Continues to Send ICE Detainees to Solitary Confinement for Refusing Voluntary Labor

Hidden Horrors of “Zero Tolerance” — Mass Trials and Children Taken From Their Parents