Trumps decision to construct a wall a long the US border with Mexico is pushing many migrants and refugees into taking more dangerous routes.
When Joel Smith first started volunteering with the humanitarian aid group Humane Borders in 2009, everyday life on the US-Mexico border was much different than today.
Humane Borders is one of several humanitarian groups working in the borderlands, putting out water and food for people crossing the border after fleeing violent conflict and economic catastrophe.
Smith, the group’s operations manager, recalls more economic migrants entering the country at the time. Border Patrol was still harsh, but recent years—especially since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017—have seen an escalated crackdown on migration.
Worse still, a larger number of people crossing the border today come from Central America, a region plagued by political violence, gang violence, and a more devastating stripe of economic devastation.
“Obama did these things,” he told TRT World, referring to border agents firing tear gas on the border earlier this year, among other human rights violations. Nonetheless, he says Trump has ramped up the clampdown.
“Obama did these evil things, but Trump just relishes in them,” Smith added.
Trump’s moves to build a border wall, as well as his deployment of troops to the border, have pushed migrants and refugees to more dangerous corridors of the desert, Smith said.
“Border Patrol [agents] are tripping over each other out there,” he said, explaining that the border agency has bulked up considerably in recent years.
Throughout 2019, the issue of immigration continued to dominate the US political debate, as the Trump administration instituted a slew of changes to the country’s policies.
From proposals to limit legal immigration to ramping up plans to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, Trump has radically altered the way the country deals with immigration.
As the US enters 2020 and nears the next presidential election, slated for November, immigration and the border are proving to be crucial campaign issues.
Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt, a Texas-based organisation that advocates for Latino voters, said in a recent statement that young Latinos “will not be silenced” and “will not be ignored” moving forward.
“As we face a presidential impeachment, harsh immigration policies and increased inequities that affect Latinos in everything from the quality of the air we breathe to the quality of education we receive,” Arellano said, “there has never been a more critical time for this growing and young demographic to push for progressive change in the United States.”
At the time of publication, TRT World was unable to reach a White House spokesperson for comment on this article.
'The country is full'
By springtime, the number of migrants and refugees reaching the US hit its highest number in more than a decade.
The Trump administration responded with harsh immigration policies. More than 55,000 people were sent back to Mexico between January and mid-December, the Los Angeles Times reports. There, the asylum seekers wait for court hearings in the US.
During a visit to California in April, the president claimed that the country was “full”, adding: “Can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry”.
An estimated 20,000 migrants are currently waiting near ports of entry to submit their initial asylum claims.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration introduced a cap on the number of refugees allowed to settle in the country in 2020. Only 18,000 will be permitted to relocate to the US, marking the lowest number in five decades.
“This tells you that this president’s policies are not about immigration. It’s about ethnicity and racism.”— TRT World (@trtworld) July 21, 2019
AOC comments on Trump’s recent remarks telling her and three other congresswomen to “go back” to their countries pic.twitter.com/ziVoyzaqaz
Back in February, the president declared a “national emergency” at the country’s southern border with Mexico.
Although the number of migrants and refugees reaching the southern border has plummeted since hitting its peak earlier this year, thousands of troops remain deployed in the borderlands.
In late November, federal courts shot down one of Trump’s strictest immigration changes.
Originally slated to go into effect on November 3, the rule would have severely restricted what the president refers to as “chain migration”—the practice in which immigrants could bring relatives to the country.
Further, immigrants lacking health insurance and the funds for medical care would have been prevented from living in the country.
Although struck down, that proposal is emblematic of the immigration crackdown championed by White House adviser Stephen Miller.
Miller's leaked emails
Miller, known as a hardliner, was recently the subject of a damning investigation produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based watchdog that monitors hate groups and hate speech.
In early November, the SPLC’s Hatewatch project released a series of articles examining Miller’s leaked emails to the former editor of the right-wing news site Breitbart.
In those emails, which were composed in 2015 and 2016, Miller promoted white nationalist ideology, anti-immigrant propaganda, and directed the editor to publish stories demonising immigrants and refugees.
“The emails, which Miller sent to the conservative website Breitbart News in 2015 and 2016, showcase the extremist, anti-immigrant ideology that undergirds the policies he has helped create as an architect of Donald Trump’s presidency,” the SPLC’s Michael Edison Hayden wrote.
“Illegal immigration is simply spiralling out of control.”— TRT World (@trtworld) March 7, 2019
Kirstjen Nielsen, US Secretary of Homeland Security faces questioning about her role in implementing Trump’s immigration policies pic.twitter.com/HqA1M2Ie8M
As the presidential elections get nearer by the day, Trump’s Democratic opponents have sought to discredit the president’s policies as racist, discriminatory and un-American.
“I think it’s important to note that this president is not against immigration, he’s against immigration by non-white people,” billioniare Tom Steyer said in a debate last week.
Since coming to office, Trump has also strived to introduce harsh limitations on travelers, immigrants and refugees coming from Muslim-majority countries.
Liza Acevedo, Deputy Press Secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, told TRT World that Trump “continually scapegoats and vilifies” Muslims.
Trump came to power by taking aim at migrants and promising to build a wall on the border, but those positions may work against him in the upcoming elections.
Nonetheless, Trump does not seem likely to back down on the issues, and humanitarian volunteers working on the border believe that the situation could grow even direr.
Shura Wallin, who has been working on the Arizona-Mexico border for two decades, says that humanitarian activists will stay committed no matter how worrisome the situation on the border becomes.
“We have a tremendous resolve, and the resolve is we’re not going to let people die in that desert, if we can help it,” she told TRT World.
Throughout the last decade, at least 90 people have died either during encounters with or in the custody of US border patrol agents, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
The group Border Angels estimated that upwards of 10,000 people have died while crossing the US-Mexico border since 1994.
“Even though we have this cloud over our heads, and we have to be circumspect about what we do, I haven’t talked to anyone who says they can’t do this anymore because they’re fearful,” Wallin said.