I know it sounds like a loaded question. There’s a reason for that. Before we get to the answer, I want to focus on a few key Executive orders that President Trump has signed since entering office roughly forty days ago. We’ve experienced forty days and forty nights of media chaos, some warranted and some a bit too over the top.
As sensationalized as everything has gotten, there are some serious problems with the actions that our Commander in Chief is taking. To cut through some of the misconceptions, I want to outline the orders I’ll be tackling and highlight out the biggest problems with them.
When it comes to immigration, the most publicized action that President Trump has taken was the enactment (and subsequent removal) of his so-called “Travel Ban.” However, it is his Executive Order focusing on border security that is extra alarming. To start, the purpose outlines the following:
“The recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico has placed a significant strain on Federal resources and overwhelmed agencies charged with border security and immigration enforcement, as well as the local communities into which many of the aliens are placed.”
This is misleading from the start, and we haven’t even gotten to the actions outlined in the order. While it’s true that a report released by the Department of Homeland Security in December does illustrate an increase in 2016 compared to 2015, the numbers are still lower than they were in 2014 or 2013. On top of that, net immigration from Mexico has been below zero for nearly a decade according to the Pew Research Center. That means more people are leaving than are coming in. In reality, Mexico isn’t even our biggest immigration challenge today.
Central Americans families and unaccompanied children fleeing poverty and violence have outnumbered illegal immigration from Mexico. This order also outlines the early work on building the supposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Of course, it is deaf to the fact that even law enforcement officials say that a physical wall is worse than a fence because law enforcement needs to be able to see the other side. Plus there’s the cost, but I digress.
Executive Order: Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking
This order, like most of the ones President Trump has signed, is more symbolic than it is tangible. It deals with an issue that seems to be stuck in the minds of many Americans. There is a pervasive fear that illegal immigrants are pouring over our border with the intent to form criminal trafficking organizations and committing mass amounts of crime. In reality, no study has ever linked immigration to crime. That doesn’t mean immigrants can’t be criminals, but it does mean that someone being an immigrant means absolutely nothing about whether or not they will be more or less likely to commit a crime. The order itself doesn’t seem to understand that.
“These groups are drivers of crime, corruption, violence, and misery. In particular, the trafficking by cartels of controlled substances has triggered a resurgence in deadly drug abuse and a corresponding rise in violent crime related to drugs.”
It sure sounds scary when they say it like that in an official Executive Order, but Thomas Abt, a criminologist at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former Chief of Staff for DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs said the following: “Here in the United States, I think a connection between immigration—legal or illegal—and violent crime is not one that there’s any evidence for.”
In a recent memo, the DHS even established a new office. The Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE) is to serve in creating a connection between the communities and citizens affected by this imaginary issue. I know that some people will cry foul because they’ve heard of some story in which an illegal immigrant committed a heinous act such as murder or rape. No one is disputing that or disputing that those violent criminals need to be removed from this country. No one. If someone tells you that all liberal Democrats want to pop open the borders and let those people in, they’re lying to you. Violent offenders need to be deported, and even President Obama was very crucial in doing that.
The issue with this order is that it is sensationalizing a problem that doesn’t exist. Violent crime is a problem. Immigration is a separate problem. Violent crime has no connection to immigration. Period. The end.
Executive Order: Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers
This may not seem related but bear with me. This specific executive order looks good and supportive of police on the surface, but in the text (and spirit) it undermines a major issue in law enforcement. There is progressively less trust between average Americans and law enforcement. On top of that, many members of the law enforcement community are increasingly on edge due to recent attacks against their fellow officers. I want to be clear that violence against law enforcement is never tolerable. There’s no excuse, and it’s never something that should be deemed “okay” by any stretch of the imagination.
However, that doesn’t mean that a “War on Cops” exists. In reality, line of duty deaths fluctuate from year to year but are still generally going down in recent years. They’ve gone up in 2016, but are still below the annual average over the last decade. Instead, it’s adding to the unrest and making community policing more difficult. There are several alarming sections of the order, but here are a few that stand out. The order seeks to “…pursue appropriate legislation, consistent with the Constitution’s regime of limited and enumerated Federal powers, that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”
It also specifies a decision to, upon review of current laws, “make recommendations to the President for legislation to address the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers, including, if warranted, legislation defining new crimes of violence and establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for existing crimes of violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers, as well as for related crimes.”
If you’re wondering what seems so wrong about that, then you may not realize how detrimental mandatory minimum sentences are. It was the use of mandatory minimum sentencing that aided in creating the era of mass incarceration when the War on Drugs took off. It takes the power of discretion away from judges and enforces harsh penalties when they may not be necessary. Combine this with the fact that the order outlines more potential laws regarding this, and it could be the bedrock for a new wave of mass incarceration. It might be a stretch to think that an order aimed at protecting law enforcement could lead to such issues. It could be abused in such a way to make it easier to arrest those who might not be the most friendly with law enforcement or trap them in situations in which that arrest is easier to justify. It wouldn’t be the first time a well-intentioned law was manipulated into injustice.
Removal of Obama Administration’s Memorandum on Reducing our Use of Private Prisons
This final point is a little more nuanced because it doesn’t deal with an order or memo from President Trump, but rather a decision by his administration to rescind one that was issued last August by the Department of Justice. In the memo, then Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates outlined the following:
“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau [of Prisons] facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional service, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and scrutiny. The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proven difficult to replicate and outsource—and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”
What’s so bad about Private Prisons?
I know this is a question a lot of people ask. I could just point back up a paragraph where the Department of Justice answered it, but I think it’s important to go a little deeper on why they’re a major issue. To start off, conditions are private prisons tend to be absolutely atrocious. Believe it or not, having good conditions for prisoners is actually a good thing. I’m sure some people are of the opinion that prisoners deserve the conditions they receive, but you have to remember that these prisoners are still people. They deserve to be treated like people, not animals.
On top of that, prisoners are expensive. Ideally, prisoners should spend a fair amount of time paying their debt to society for the crime they committed and then be released out into the world. The problem is that, after that release, most of those criminals have experienced so much emotional (and sometimes physical) trauma from the conditions they were subjected to that their likelihood of returning skyrockets. If people keep coming back to prison, they keep costing us money. Instead of wasting resources on private prisons that have fewer incentives to rehabilitate and are driven by a profit margin, it would be wiser to invest in programs that help keep criminals out of prison once their sentence is up.
This goes back to the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing, and economists have even suggested lengthy sentencing only works as a crime deterrent up to a certain point. There’s a threshold in which criminals start to become less concerned with the consequences of their actions. Pushing mandatory minimums will only end up raising the likelihood that someone will commit a crime again upon release. The companies that own private prisons would certainly prefer mandatory minimums because it helps guarantee them the profit from keeping their cells full.
An investigation into issues with private prisons conducted last year focused on one particular compound in Raymondville, TX. The Willacy County Regional Detention Center has been the subject of scrutiny for a few years now, and much of it began with the construction of the facility as a temporary holding center for immigrants awaiting deportation or transfer. Instead of being a traditional prison, it’s built entirely out of tents. The conditions are cramped, hot, stink, and the complex is severely understaffed. An article in Texas Monthly also outlined the major medical care issues within the complex:
In June 2009, Kathleen Baldoni, a former nurse at Willacy, testified before Congress during a briefing organized by Human Rights Watch to shed light on insufficient medical care provided in detention facilities across the country. “The level of human suffering was just unbelievable,” Baldoni testified. “There was inadequate food and personal items—personal hygiene was a problem—as was access to medical care.” According to the Texas Tribune, a 2007 review of Willacy’s medical facilities revealed that twenty of the center’s 46 health care positions were vacant at the time of the review, and the facility was without a clinical director, dentist, pharmacist, or psychiatrist. Baldoni told the Tribune in 2009 that detainees with health problems would be lucky to receive medical attention within a week. “We didn’t delve into anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary,” Baldoni told the Tribune. “After a while, you stop thinking about the people. You force yourself not to care as much. Because how else do you get the job done?”
On top of that, former guards have been charged with bribery and violating the civil rights of a person in custody. The combination of medical care failures and civil rights violations led to a massive riot in early 2015. In response to the riot, Willacy County filed a lawsuit late last year alleging that the private prison company that ran the facility caused the riot because of “abysmal management.” Low and behold, the county is now considering settling or even dropping the lawsuit because of renewed interest in the facility due to President Trump’s immigration actions.
Immigrants & Prisoners are People, Not Profit
It might sound like a “soft on crime” kind of opinion to insist on rights for prisoners. The truth is that every case is unique, and there are good people who find themselves in bad situations. There are good people who make poor decisions. There are also bad people who make terrible decisions and deserve the punishment they’ve been given, but if we want those offenders who can one day get out to stay out, something has to change.
Private prisons do not care about the conditions that their prisoners must endure. They care about their profit margins. In a scathing report by the ACLU, they found that “mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group — the private prison industry — even as current incarceration levels harm the country as a whole.” Even Fox News outlined the benefits of incarceration, and specifically the imprisonment of immigrants, as a huge benefit to private prisons.
President Trump’s sudden arrival and decision to bolster both the private prison industry and broaden the powers of law enforcement to keep those prisons full fly in stark contrast to the fact that both crime and the prison population have actually been going down for years. That doesn’t mean crimes don’t still happen or that strides can’t be made to improve things, but it is dangerous to paint with such a broad, paranoid brush like President Trump does.
Silence is Complicity
I want to finally revisit a sentiment I introduced when I first decided to get political here. I first want to clarify that I am not so simplistic in believing that a lack of social media posts about a topic suddenly makes someone guilty. Silence can include refusing to stand up for those who are victimized or marginalized by actions or refusing to acknowledge such issues. Every person must decide for themselves how they feel they can make a difference. They have to decide for themselves how to stand up and push against injustice.
For me, this comes in the form of posting stories I’m passionate about on social media. It also includes this specific foray into the world of political journalism. These are issues that move me. These are stories in which the compassion and kindness within me are stirred to fight for those who can’t. That doesn’t mean everyone will choose the same avenue as me. Some may not find themselves comfortable pushing a public agenda on their social media because of their job or another position in their life. Others may just not enjoy using social media much.
Action can still be taken by being mindful of these issues and seeking to discuss them with friends and acquaintances they might be open to such discussions. That continues to raise awareness of the issues. Action can be taken in the form of peaceful protests to raise awareness. You could take the time to contact your congressman directly about an issue. Others might find they’ve been blessed with the ability to donate funds to causes. I often wish I had the chance to do that more, but everyone can get involved in their own way.
If You See Something, Say Something
Believe it or not, this old slogan has been around for nearly sixteen years now. It was actually created shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and since then it has become a rallying cry for transportation bureaus around the world. It’s even trademarked by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The slogan hasn’t exactly had major success, but the thought is nice. It’s simple. It’s catchy. If you see something suspicious, let the police know. Sounds great, right? Instead, the slogan has helped feed a “fear of the other” within the country. It’s led to calls to police that start with “I’m not racist, but” and go on to outline a person of color or potentially foreign looking person simply existing. You never want to discourage someone from calling the police in a real emergency, but what determines something being “suspicious” seems to have changed over the years.
Instead, the slogan has helped feed a “fear of the other” within the country. It’s led to calls to police that start with “I’m not racist, but” and go on to outline a person of color or potentially foreign looking person simply existing. You never want to discourage someone from calling the police in a real emergency, but what determines something being “suspicious” seems to have changed over the years.
For me, the slogan means something very different. When I see injustice, I can’t be silent. I’ve realized that over the past few years. That’s the whole reason I’m even writing this. Right now, I see President Trump making decisions that will directly impact the criminal justice system in a negative way, widen the divide between communities and law enforcement, and disproportionately target people of color and non-violent immigrants.
Most people insist that the actions on immigration will only target violent criminals, but we’ve already seen it affect a French Holocaust historian, a Jordanian with a valid U.S. Visa, a mother with years of immigration compliance and no violent history, and a father with a single non-violent conviction from 15 years ago. President Trump has been in office for a mere forty days. His immigration policies have been in effect for only a short time. This is just the beginning. In the end, Trump may indeed want mass deportation. Both of illegal and legal immigrants. For now, he clearly wants mass incarceration. With every action, he empowers the criminal justice system to pack their institutions to the brim and simultaneously line the pockets of the private prison industry.
Does Trump want mass deportation or mass incarceration? The answer is yes. It’s just a matter of time.