Last week, Trump ordered his top officials to come up with a way, within 90 days, of charging asylum seekers for applying for asylum. Of all the cruel anti-immigrant measures that this sadistic regime has come up with since January 2017, this one ranks right up there with family separation and child imprisonment.
If there were a competition for devising the most Kafka-esque or Catch 22-like policy, the asylum application fee would surely win. It is intended to be as insidious, and impossible to successfully navigate, as the medieval dunking tests meant to ferret out witches.
The witch tests were designed to set up those subjected to their cruelties to fail. Put simply, if a person was suspected of being a witch and somehow survived being held under water for prolonged periods, that was proof of their guilt and they were executed. If they weren’t witches, however, their innocence could only be proven by their susceptibility to drowning when their heads were submerged by their merciless interrogators. Either way, once you were accused of being a witch, you were pretty much screwed.
The idea of charging a fee to asylum seekers is just as murderous. The mythical “fake” asylum seeker of Trump’s imagination might actually have resources to pay for the application process, but a genuine asylum seeker most likely won’t. After all, almost by definition, asylum seekers are people who have fled for their lives with pretty much nothing more than the clothes on their backs, who have paid smugglers to get them out of death-zones and extortionists to not kill them and their kids. They are also people who, if sent back for not being able to pay a fee, would face a high likelihood of death.
This past week in Arizona, I met asylum seekers from Central America who were welcomed into the United States by being put in freezing cold detention centers, with only flimsy aluminum blankets to warm them. They were kept 30-plus people to a room, and were told that if they were thirsty, the only liquid available to them during the three days they remained in detention was the dirty water from a faucet next to the toilet that was used by all.
Now “free” while they await their immigration hearings, these asylum seekers – mainly parents with their young children — are restricted with ankle monitors. They are trying, often without luck, to find out where their incarcerated relatives have been sent; and are trying to rustle up enough money to make the bus journeys to wherever in the U.S. their sponsor families live. These are people who embarked on one of the most perilous of journeys – the modern-day death marches north from Central America. They were targets of kidnappers, narco-gangs, corrupt police and military officials, and finally, the brutality of Trump’s borderlands. They faced these mortal dangers in order to escape an even more perilous existence in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
The idea that anyone would do such a journey simply to have something like a “Disneyland experience,” as Trump so shockingly put it recently, is an absurdity. These are parents who have at times literally walked through rivers of shit with their young children to seek safety. These are people who were told by drug gangs that if they didn’t leave their hometowns, their whole families would be tortured and executed. These are people who ended up so hungry after days in Customs and Border Protection detention that when humanitarian volunteers gave them hot meals upon their release, even the smallest of kids, the volunteers reported, wolfed down three plates of food.
Trump’s policy was presented as intended to weed out those without viable asylum claims. It will, of course, do the opposite — putting up further barriers to entry to people who, under both U.S. and international law, have a perfect right to apply for asylum here in the United States.
Consider it somewhat akin to the Jim Crow poll tax. Those laws, which were enacted by one Southern state after another from the 1890s into the mid-20th century, were, on the face of it, simply about raising revenue. In practice, however, they were used to deliberately target African American and, to a lesser extent, poor white would-be voters, so as to keep the ballot box the preserve of white, and preferably affluent, Southerners.
Today, the asylum fee would serve a similar purpose, helping Trump’s nationalist regime to keep poor, Brown people out of the country. So, too, would the other order Trump announced: barring asylum seekers from receiving work permits while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated. Since there are already nearly insurmountable barriers to asylum seekers receiving public benefits, this new order essentially condemns them to months of absolute penury while they wait to see if U.S. courts consider them endangered enough in their home countries to merit asylum.
In the 1930s, the U.S. put up all kinds of obstacles to Jewish and other refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Amongst the things would-be refugees had to present were transit visas for all of the countries they would have to go through on the way to the U.S., each one of which took money to obtain. The results were, as we know, catastrophic. Large numbers of people who could have reached the United States instead perished.
In 2019, U.S. leaders are doing similarly shameful things. Trump’s people have reduced to virtually zero the numbers of Syrian and Yemeni refugees they admit. And now they have turned their propaganda machine against penniless asylum seekers from points south.
Trump talks of a “crisis” on the southern border. There is, indeed, a crisis — but not of the kind that Trump or Stephen Miller or William Barr would have us believe. Instead, it is one of entrenched racism, corroded empathy and of imaginative cruelty. It is one in which elected leaders and their appointees deliberately dehumanize vulnerable, poor, marginalized human beings. It is playing out with the sorry spectacle of leaders of federal agencies rushing to fulfill the president’s wish to humiliate rather than to aid the desperate and the poor who have come to this land of plenty in search of safety and opportunity for their children.
There is a banality of evil afoot in Trumpland. It is becoming a place where career bureaucrats and civil servants are rewarded for their fealty not to constitutional norms, or even just common decency, but to the vicious whims of a ruthless leader.