They Make Things Worse and Make Americans Fearful
When immigrants are trying to save themselves and their children from a certain, tortured death in their countries, they will take a chance. Any parent in the same situation, anywhere in the world, would do the same thing. You try to survive and save your children, even at your own expense.
When other people in safer countries, like America, feel cheated or have become worse-off economically, they don’t know where to turn or whom to blame. Powerful politicians blame immigrants for bad economic conditions. As a result, many people believe that “zero tolerance’ for immigrants in general, will make things right. In fact, under these conditions, some citizens will take things further or into their own hands, feeling emboldened and entitled to target their neighbors and fellow citizens for hate speech and violence.
Immigration has always been a hotly-debated topic in the United States. The vehement objections people make to new immigrants coming into the country hasn’t changed throughout the centuries either. It’s just that Americans now have myriad ways to express their opposition and equally as many ways to obtain wrong information about what the immigration laws are and how the government really enforces them.
In reality, there is no absolute, 100%-enforcement. Why? Because it’s fiscally impossible and leads to unintended consequences for innocent parties.
What Does “Zero Tolerance” Mean?
It’s the belief that the immigration laws in the U.S. should absolutely not allow any exceptions for even the smallest, unintentional violation whatsoever. Proponents of Zero Tolerance immigration enforcement also believe that people who arrive at the border to request asylum in the U.S. should be prevented from doing so, even though our laws permit this type of application.
It’s also important to understand that U.S. immigration law is not part of our criminal justice system. It is based in civil law. To equate immigration violations to criminal violations is plain wrong—both morally, legally and as a matter of international law.
Why Do We Let People in Who Just Show Up with Their Kids?
The processes for vetting applicants for asylum or for refugee status have been in place for decades. Our justice system and our principles welcome people fleeing persecution. The refugee/asylum application processes require a lot of documentation, interviews with immigration or U.S. consular officers and require the government to make a judgment call. Officers have a lot of discretion (i.e. greater-than-zero tolerance) when making decisions.
Included in the process is an evaluation of whether the person is telling the truth and the story is plausible. Often, the government does reject worthy candidates. Rarely, are undeserving applicants approved. In the past, the policy of all administrations has been to keep families together while they go through the application process, requiring them to report to USCIS at regular intervals. There is almost a 99% compliance rate.
Why do parents come with their kids? Because when someone is pointing a gun at your baby’s head, you take that baby and run as far and as fast as you can to save his life. You take your chance that you’ll make it to the border safely. Because the alternative is death.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
The answer to that is, the lines move. A lot. It depends on who is making decisions about an application, what kind of immigration problem is involved and who has the microphone in Washington. Drawing the line is politically-motivated. Business interests usually had a loud voice in decisions involving labor. But even that has become muted and ineffective in the current environment.
Here are some line-drawing exercises:
A U.S. citizen studying abroad meets the person she’d like to spend the rest of her life with. He comes to the U.S. for a visit to meet her family and then plans to return to Ireland, where he lives. Unfortunately, he has a car accident and ends up hospitalized, staying longer than he was supposed to in the U.S. He is violating immigration law even though he was in the hospital.
Do you punish him for the rest of his life and ban him from ever returning to marry his U.S. citizen fiancée? This has the unintended consequence of forcing a U.S. citizen to leave her country and live abroad with her future husband.
If you believe in Zero Tolerance, you would have to respond, “yes.” Fortunately, depending upon how long he overstayed, there are options for him to come back to the U.S.
Take that same Irish fiancé in the example above. Let’s say that he never came to visit the U.S. He would like to meet his fiancée’s family in the U.S. but has one controlled substance conviction in Ireland that happened when he was a teenager. He is not an addict and hasn’t had any problems since then. He now owns a successful farming operation in Ireland and has a multi-million-dollar export business.
In this case, the fiancé was in fact barred from ever coming to the U.S., even to visit his fiancée or her family. Zero Tolerance regulations are already in place that prevent people with minor crimes like this one, from ever coming to the U.S. despite their current, clean records.
U.S. Immigration Law Is Complex and 100% Enforcement Comes at a Price
Americans were not always willing to fund the massive expense associated with a Zero Tolerance immigration system. Keeping people in jail and having a full-on police force spread out across thousands of miles along the northern and southern borders gets ridiculously expensive. That’s why we don’t do it.
However, if you believe that everyone coming across the border is a criminal, you’d probably argue that it’s worth the expense. But, your facts are wrong.
Most Immigrants Come Lawfully
Most people do enter the U.S. lawfully. Some do not. Most of those who do not enter lawfully, are in dire straits, coming from the most dangerous countries in the world. They are fleeing for their lives and for the lives of their children. Most will apply for asylum once they are in the U.S. if they do not make it to a border crossing.
In fact, the current policy of rejecting asylum applicants at official border crossing posts will only encourage more people to take a chance and enter unlawfully so they can apply inside the U.S. For them, they are facing death by execution or death by starvation, persecution and civil war. There is nothing to lose by fleeing for the previously-welcoming United States.
Until now, the immigration policy of past administrations allowed, or at least tolerated having some flexibility and provided legal exceptions to our immigration laws.
Let’s Talk About What “Zero Tolerance” Really Means in a Broader Context
As they do in any country, government resources come into play. Everyone from the federal government — including ICE — down to the smallest local police departments, uses discretion when deciding to enforce or prosecute any particular law.
I’ve particularly seen discretion used in immigration law for decades. People and politicians only scream out to “enforce the rule of law” when it suits their own purposes or political agendas. Here are a few examples of an official exercising discretion:
- Immigration judges, prosecutors, ICE, CPB and USCIS officers use their “discretionary” power every single day when deciding if someone who has an immigration violation, should be given an immigration benefit; released on bond; granted a waiver for whatever it is they did; or, admitted or denied entry into the country.
- Police officers who stop you for speeding, use their discretion if they let you off with only a warning. You violated the law by speeding—even if it was by only one mph over the limit. But, because it’s expensive to prosecute you and then throw you in jail for an offense that fortunately did not hurt anyone else, the officer lets you go. The officer made a judgment call that your violation simply is not worth the expense of prosecution, incarceration and assigning an expensive parole officer when you get out. You benefitted from that officer not subscribing to a “zero tolerance” policy.
- For decades, the USCIS “looked the other way” for businesses hiring undocumented employees. They were the reason wages stayed low. The employers weren’t following the rules either. Their labor violations hurt U.S. workers because they refused to pay fair wages to everyone. Also, the manual-labor shortage spawned an underground, cottage-industry of criminals who made fake IDs for specific employers who also looked the other way. Farmers and ranchers needed farm workers (jobs went unfilled because not enough US workers would take them) and crops would rot in the fields. The government looked the other way so we could all have inexpensive food.
Zero Tolerance Policies Are an Inefficient Use of Resources
In summary, there is no “rule of law” that does not balance the costs of carrying out a “Zero Tolerance” policy with the risks of harm to citizens. The Department of Homeland Security and its predecessor agencies have been doing it for decades.
Any story claiming that this policy resulted in the country being overrun with criminal aliens is simply not true and based on incorrect information. Zero Tolerance policies are expensive and never foolproof. Most significantly, they unintentionally impose harsh consequences on U.S. businesses and ordinary citizens.