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Portland, OR, USA on 9/5/2017 © Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock

Have Trump’s Immigration Policies Made the US Safer?

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Hiroshi Motomura, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Since coming to office, President Donald Trump has tightened US immigration policies, both legal and illegal. His policies follow economic nationalism and are part of his “America First” slogan, aimed at protecting American workers and industries.

In 2017, Trump banned immigration from several Muslim-majority countries and ordered the building of a separation wall along the US border with Mexico, from which a large number of illegal immigrants flock to the United States. The Trump administration also enacted a policy that permitted the government to take thousands of illegal migrant children from their parents at US ports of entry and place them in cage-like detention centers.

On several occasions, the US president has blamed the apparently “lenient” and “generous” immigration policies of America. He has described these as the most “ridiculous” immigration laws in the world and censured immigrants for the economic and social woes the country faces.

In recent remarks, President Trump said, “Illegal immigration hurts American workers; burdens American taxpayers; and undermines public safety; and places enormous strain on local schools, hospitals, and communities in general, taking precious resources away from the poorest Americans who need them most.”

Trump’s harsh crackdown on immigration seems to be a realization of his campaign trail promises from 2016. Advocates and attorneys say the restrictions are meant to upend all types of immigration, despite the country having a moral and legal obligation with regard to refugees.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Hiroshi Motomura, the Susan Westerberg Prager distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, about Trump’s contentious immigration policies and their legal implications.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Do President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions, especially his Muslim ban enforced through the Executive Order 13769, which was superseded by the Executive Order 13780 and Presidential Proclamation 9645, have constitutional justification?

Hiroshi Motomura: The US Supreme Court decided in June 2018 that the lower court was wrong in blocking the ban from going into effect. The court’s reasoning suggests that it believes that the third version of the ban, in a Presidential Proclamation, is constitutional, as justified on national security grounds and consistent with federal immigration statutes. But there is still ongoing litigation on the question whether the individual waivers — which would allow people to come to the United States in spite of the ban — are being administered in a way that is lawful.

So, the basic answer is that the ban as written has a constitutional justification, according to the Supreme Court, but that as actually implemented it may violate either the Constitution or federal statutes. We won’t know the answer to this question for some time, because this aspect of the case needs to work its way through the courts.

Ziabari: Do you agree that a more reasonable approach to immigration is devising mechanisms to prevent illegal immigration and promote legal immigration, instead of imposing blanket bans on citizens of an entire country? The latest presidential proclamation by President Trump suspends the entry of all North Korean, Syrian and Somali nationals, as well as Iranian citizens with a few exceptions. Is this a realistic way of keeping the United States safe?

Motomura: My own view is that blanket bans on immigrants, or other new arrivals, including students, business people and temporary workers, is a very counterproductive way to formulate immigration policy. This sort of ban is much too overbroad and is based on stereotypes and generalizations that are very misleading. To have this sort of policy that bars entire nationality groups also discriminates against US citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States who have close relatives in the banned country. This erodes equality and human dignity inside the United States, without making America safer.

Ziabari: Some scholars argue that powerful countries such as the United States have a moral obligation to help refugees who are desperately seeking to escape war, conflict and unrest at home, and that this humanitarian responsibility has its own secular roots. However, it seems like the current US administration doesn’t believe it has such an obligation. What’s your take on that?

Motomura: Almost the entire world agreed after World War II that there was a strong moral imperative to protect refugees fleeing various forms of persecution. Almost the entire world, including the United States, signed onto an international convention to protect refugees. The current US administration is trying desperately to avoid these legal obligations, which are not only in international treaties that the United States joined, but also reflected in US statutes designed to implement those treaties. This current administration policy violates the US government’s binding obligations, and it reflects an abdication of US leadership on the world stage.

Ziabari: The Islamic State’s (IS) ideology is a dangerously reactionary and exclusionary one. IS says the United States is fundamentally hostile to Islam as a religion and Muslims altogether. Won’t the immigration policies of President Trump play into the hands of IS ideologues by alienating asylum-seekers from Muslim countries, especially Syrian refugees, who want better and more prosperous lives?

Motomura: The current US administration’s immigration policies, especially toward majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East, send a disturbingly counterproductive message that plays into the hands of IS and other groups intent on stirring up hostility to the United States. The policies are also very divisive inside the United States, sending a message of exclusion to Muslim Americans, to others who trace their ancestry to the affected countries and to others in the United States who may look or sound “foreign.”

Ziabari: The United States has historically been open to immigrants and refugees and, in turn, has benefited from highly-skilled, talented immigrants who have empowered different sectors of the economy — industries, sciences and tech, including Silicon Valley. Why have things changed so radically under President Trump?

Motomura: The current US administration purports to support “high-skill” immigration. Historically, however, many of the immigrants who have made the most significant contributions to the US economy did not come to the United States in circumstances of mature prosperity or fully developed skills. Many of them came as the children of poor immigrants, but through education and hard work they were able to contribute mightily to American prosperity. The current policies threaten to cut off this pipeline of talent by restricting legal immigration, and by restricting access to US universities by international students, many of whom would contribute to US companies, or start them.

Ziabari: How prevalent are anti-immigrant sentiments among the broader public in the United States? Are the talking points about immigrants, including the conviction that they are a “burden” on the educational system and social services, “commit more crimes” than native citizens, break the laws of the nation and occupy jobs, close to reality?

Motomura: Anti-immigrant sentiments are, to some extent, part of all societies. But the larger part of US society continues to look positively on immigration and immigrants. The problem is that immigration is an easy target for politicians who see advantages at the ballot box if they demonize some immigrants and link them to crime and other harms. Many studies show that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born US citizens, all other things being equal. But political messaging, including from the current administration, exaggerates the facts in ways that are both badly distorting and needlessly divisive.

Ziabari: Some 52% of illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico. Do these undocumented and illegal Mexican immigrants and those who have overstayed their visas and are currently employed pose a threat to the security and integrity of the United States? What is the US government’s approach to them?

Motomura: The current US government’s approach, and one shared but with less intensity in prior administrations, is to respond to undocumented immigrants with relentless enforcement. This may win some votes in the short run, but it is ultimately not a way to enhance the security and integrity of the United States. The far better approach is to align the immigration system with the needs of the US economy by allowing more people to come to the United States to work legally, and to give legal status to people who have been in United States and contribute to the economy and society.

Right now, there is no line to stand in for many workers who readily find work. It is also important, though, to take seriously the needs of US workers who feel displaced by new arrivals. The billions of dollars that would be needed to build a wall could instead fund a great deal of education and retraining for low-income workers in the United States.

Ziabari: What do you think about President Trump’s family separation policy? The practice was condemned by different organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said the policy has caused “irreparable harm” to children who were segregated from their parents. Why did the administration adopt such a hard-hitting strategy to deal with migrants entering via Mexico?

Motomura: The “family separation” policy is disturbing for many reasons. One is the trauma and harm inflicted on children. Another is the cruelty of using the threat of separating children from their parents as a way to deter people fleeing desperate situations from applying for protection in the United States. This is protection that these migrants have the right to apply for, according to the laws of the United States. The administration has adopted this strategy as a way to avoid its obligations under law, and relatedly to avoid taking the claims of migrants seriously by allowing them a chance to present their cases in immigration courts. In this way, the administration’s “family separation” policy is an affront to the rule of law.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.