Trump proposes tiny steps to address big problems he created. Migrant leaders demand more

Óscar Chacón


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Beyond the plainly cynical and untruthful elements in the speech delivered by president Donald Trump on Saturday 19, his proposal of three-year extension for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), is at best, a nod toward the need to for solutions to the problems created by president Trump himself.

In what the Trump administration has characterized as a balanced effort to overcome the budget impasse -which has kept several branches of the federal government closed since the end of December- the government offers help to those it said it would expel. The vast majority of TPS beneficiaries are Salvadorans, Hondurans and Haitians. At least tens of thousands of young people are also protected by DACA. In return, Trump expects the Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) to approve a package of border control measures, strengthening the enforcement capacity of the current immigration law, and of course, his border wall.

If there is anything worth highlighting in Trump's speech, it is the fact that he makes explicit reference to TPS. Until 2016, TPS and its beneficiaries were largely invisible in the US immigration policy debate. The fact that President Trump felt compelled to speak about TPS, marks a degree of success in the advocacy work done over the past few years by key civil society organizations such as Alianza Americas. This development suggests the need to increase political pressure in order to ensure TPS and its beneficiaries are no longer ignored. After all, the future of more than 300,000 individuals and their families, the majority of them Salvadorians, is at stake.

While it is true that most TPS and DACA beneficiaries have immediate and urgent worries about losing their temporary protection, both groups should be moved into a path toward permanent residence visas. Advocacy work promoted by Alianza Americas and many other organizations demand an immigration adjustment of status program that allow TPS and DACA holders to formalize what in practice they already are: US Permanent Residents.

Trump proposes to solve a problem that he created, in exchange for votes for his border control policy. However, from a rational and balanced perspective, there is no reason to continue to waste US taxpayers’ money with more punitive measures of containment. The physical walls, the militarization of borders, the strengthening of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and the scaffold of detention centers in the border regions, as well as in the interior of the country (which are mostly operated by private corporations), are not the solution. This wrong-headed approach has dominated US migration policy since the mid-1980s, shared by both Republicans and Democrats. The Trump administration has taken an especially zealous approach to enforcing the punitive migration policies, accompanied by xenophobic and racist rhetoric from the presidential pulpit as never before in recent history.

Trump became president through an electoral campaign that promoted hatred against foreigners, especially Mexicans and Latin Americans. From the day he was inaugurated, he has carried out an unrelenting attack against immigrants. His oft-repeated promise of a border wall (which he continues to say will be paid for by Mexico) provides a rhetorical link to demonize migration flows, which he associates with crime, drug trafficking and many other ills that, from his narrative, threaten the well-being of American society.

The recent mid-term legislative elections, which could have provided an opportunity for the Republican Party to run a campaign focused on a message of economic prosperity for everyone, turned out centered once again on an anti-immigrant message. Trump himself manipulated the reality of a migrant caravan from Central America, to strengthen his xenophobic and racist discourse.

The result of the midterm election was a mixed one for the political-electoral agenda promoted under Trump’s leadership. On the one hand, the Democrats managed to win a majority in the House of Representatives, winning 235 of the 435 seats in that chamber. Beyond the fact they won the majority in the House of Representatives, they did so with one of the most diverse composition in US history, with the largest number of women, people of ethnic and religious minorities, and a large contingent of legislators self-identify as progressives. This Democratic majority also includes 24 conservative Democratic lawmakers who are members of the "Blue Dog Coalition." This would suggest that Trump’s electoral strategy failed. However, in the Senate, the Republican Party managed to increase its advantage, now holding 53 out of 100 seats in the US Senate. This divided government sets up the chaotic situation detonated by the partial closure of the federal government, and complicates any effort to push for policy changes.

The statement by President Trump should be understood as a unilateral offer towards overcoming the partial government shut-down. The negative response given by key Democratic Party leaders, even before Trump's speech, suggests they are thinking ahead to the 2020 elections, rather than focusing on the immediate negotiations. To the extent that Trump considers his proposal as the only way to overcome the current crisis, its demagogic essence will become clear. A negotiated solution will require scrutiny, changes and even counterproposals from legislators. It is impossible to imagine a resolution that does not imply a political negotiation between the White House and the Congress.

A divided Congress, with a Republican Senate and Democrat House of Representatives, will define political negotiations in the United States for the next two years. Communities who are affected by multiple gaps in public policy, including the case of immigrant communities, will compete in attention with the strictly electoral interests of the parties ahead of the next presidential and legislative election of 2020.

In the case of migrants affected by the cancellation of the TPS and DACA protections, concrete solutions in 2021 could be too late. For many of them, temporary protection will end in 2019. In the absence of a legislative solution to the precarious current situation, the only faint light of hope are the decisions made by federal courts that have temporarily invalidated the cancellation of DACA and TPS protection programs, except in the case of Hondurans. However, these preliminary decisions could change as a result of rulings by higher courts, which may be favorable to the Trump administration.

It is crucial to recognize that both immigration policy and policies related to way foreign national residing in the US are treated are in need of profound changes if the goal is to equip the country with sensible, humane and functional policies for the 21st century. Changes that may even be role models for other nations. However, with Trump in the presidency, and with a Federal Senate controlled by the Republican Party, there is little chance that major reforms could be enacted before 2021, even if advocates succeed in changing the dominant narrative that has driven policy since the mid-1980s.

In spite of these odds, and assuming a genuine willingness to reach short-term agreements between Republicans and Democrats, immigrant communities must speak out to make sure that policymakers are hearing our most urgent demands, including:

· Putting in place a legislative solution that allows DACA and TPS beneficiaries to apply for permanent residence visas. This is the only clear path to overcoming the uncertainty in which these populations have lived for many years. Current immigration protection permits must remain in effect while new program is approved and implemented.

· Re-affirm current asylum law and make sure that any person seeking humanitarian protection is able to apply for asylum in the US, without being placed in detention, or forced to wait in Mexico while their applications are considered.

· Reform the law that regulates humanitarian protections for families in a way that protects family unity and puts an immediate and definitive end to the separation of children from their parents.

· Significantly increase the number of refugees to be resettled in the US to a minimum of 75 thousand people per year.

· Cancel funding for detention centers that are currently housing tens of thousands of people whose only legal infraction is residing in the United States without proper authorization. Redirect those financial resources to programs aimed at facilitating the economic, social and cultural integration of immigrant populations in localities undergoing demographic transformations.

· Work through the relevant Congressional committees to develop foreign assistance programs for southern Mexico and Central America. The aim would be to radically improve the level of economic, social, political and cultural wellbeing in those areas, recognizing that efforts over the last few decades have not worked either to transform local realities, or to counter the seductive power of migration as a strategy to overcome poverty and expand opportunities.

· Finally, it will be crucial to support multi-lateral efforts to combat corruption, and to ensure that the most economically powerful sectors in Mexico and Central America contribute appropriately to the tax base of their respective nations.

At a minimum, we should make sure that legislators are held accountable over the next two years for patterns of negligence that have allowed problems to fester. By setting out some basic principles, we can lay the groundwork for more ambitious transformations.

US citizen born in El Salvador, analyst on various topics of public policy and executive director of Alianza Americas @AlianzaAmericas @oachacon61
US citizen born in El Salvador, analyst on various topics of public policy and executive director of Alianza Americas @AlianzaAmericas @oachacon61