US President Donald Trump may contradict himself constantly and change policies like he changes socks, but where he can be counted on to remain ever consistent is when it comes to his complete opposition to truth.
This week he is again appealing to falsehoods as a means of defending the indefensible: his failed “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Tweeting and speaking in perpetual campaign mode to his base—who, let’s face it, have proven they will believe anything as long as it comes from the royal palomino’s mouth—he has offered up a multiple array of misconceptions and utter falsehoods about immigration and the law. These are lies that go beyond the realm of mere skewed viewpoints and minor prevarication and enter the territory of unconstitutionality.
One of the first things that would-be despots and village tyrants in other parts of the world have done to consolidate power and play to their non-democratic base has been to infiltrate, elude or shut down the courts. The extent to which Trump has sought to do this is already apparent from his record-setting appointment of far-right judges to the US justice system. And since federal judges are appointed to their posts to serve “during good behavior”—another way of saying for life or until they voluntarily retire from office—their influence, and Trump’s, promises to carry over long after the current president is voted out of office or is no longer eligible to run.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, explained earlier this year just how important it was that Trump was seeking to paper the federal court system with as many far-right judges as he could (according to the GOP itself, more than ever before in the country’s nearly two and a half centuries of history). According to Feinstein, “The Supreme Court hears between 100 and 150 cases each year out of the more than 7,000 it’s asked to review. But in 2015 alone, more than 55,000 cases were filed in federal appeals courts.” The significance of this was, she explained, that “in a way, circuit courts serve as the de facto Supreme Court to the vast majority of individuals who bring cases. They are the last word.”
She described as “stunning” the speed with which Trump was appointing judges and the GOP congressional majority was ramming approval of these appointments through Congress.
But in some of his latest tweets, Trump has suggested that, when it comes to immigrants, he wants to circumvent the court system entirely. In other words, he would like to institute a kind of “hanging-judge” lawlessness on the border, where law enforcement officials would be able to act directly, in his name, and at their discretion, without the intervention of any immigration court at all. This too is what every despot has wanted and, if they were able to consolidate enough power, it has been exactly what they’ve done, set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner, given themselves a monopoly on rights, made the will of the people subordinate to their own and rendered the rights of the minority non-existent.
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The president backs his call for absolute White House control of the border by employing falsehoods galore. Among them, that the border is being constantly permeated by terrorists. His claim in seeking ever tougher treatment of would-be immigrants has been that “Every day, sanctuary cities release illegal immigrants, drug dealers, traffickers, gang members back into our communities. They’re safe havens for just some terrible people.” And polls indicate that nearly half of the US population believes him.
But the facts don’t back his claim up. Studies show that while immigrant populations have been growing quickly over the last several decades, violent crime in the United States has been dropping steadily since 1980. A University of Buffalo study that was later expanded by The Marshall Project and that looked at statistics from over 135 urban areas across the US indicated that in almost 70 percent of those studied, the immigrant population increased between 1980 and 2016 while crime stayed stable or fell. And in the ten urban areas that saw the largest absolute increases in immigrants, crime levels were significantly lower in 2016 than in 1980.
Trump has also stated, irresponsibly and without any grounds in truth, that “they” (whoever “they” are) want to add 5,000 new immigration judges to handle what he tries to portray as an enormous influx of illegal immigrants. The fact is that the most salient proposal for finding a more effective way of handling illegal immigration cases has come from within his own party and was suggested by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz has called for the doubling of immigration judges from 334 to about 750. That’s a far cry from 5,000.
Furthermore, in order to wield the kind of discretionary power that Trump wants the Executive Branch to have on US borders, he would necessarily have to violate the Constitution, international treaties and US legal precedents and regulations. Experts consulted by The Washington Post, for instance, indicate that there is an entire body of statutes and precedents that govern the due process afforded to asylum-seekers. They add that these are further underscored by such major international treaties as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
And then there’s the Constitution. As retired University of Texas law professor Barbara Hines told Washington Post fact-checkers, “The Constitution and the immigration laws, other than expedited removal, administrative removal and other limited exceptions, do not provide for deportation without an administrative hearing before an immigration judge. That would violate due process.”
And even then, the federal government already wields enormous discretionary power through the kind of exceptional cases that Professor Hines quotes, in which law enforcement can detain and remove immigrants with no due process whatsoever.
There are mounting calls from the opposition, as Trump seeks ever increasing powers, to do away with ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency instituted under the Bush administration in 2003, in the wave of panic and paranoia that followed the 911 tragedy. The catch-all agency’s detractors accuse ICE of being an immigration shock force that has proven abusive and even cruel in carrying out its actions. Some people in the Trump administration have suggested that this is a virtue and what ICE was created for, to go where no other law enforcement group dares to tread and to operate only marginally within the law.
Before the advent of the Trump era, it would have been easy to conclude that the president is merely bloviating when he talks about handling immigration from the Oval Office and casting aside justice and the highest laws in the land to do it. But we’re quickly being cured under this administration of our naïve belief in the sanctity of the law and of human and civil rights. The feeling is growing that, under Trump, anything is possible, as long as its result is the erosion of high principles for which the United States was once known throughout the world.
Meanwhile, American Airlines, Frontier, Southwest and United Airlines are all now refusing to be accomplices to the government’s anti-immigrant campaign by affirming that they will no longer provide service to the federal government for transporting immigrant children separated from parents. The move came after flight attendants shared their experiences transporting immigrant infants, toddlers, and children separated from their parents by the government. Most indicated that they had been traumatized by the feeling of being complicit in the pain and confusion felt by their unwilling child passengers.
An American Airlines statement said: “We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it. We have every expectation the government will comply with our request (to refrain from booking detained migrant children on its flights) and we thank them for doing so.”
Clearly, the family separation policy could never work without the complicity of individuals and businesses outside of the government. American Airlines has taken the lead in bringing this fact to the fore. Hopefully it will maintain its line, and other businesses will follow the airline’s example in not lending themselves to this and other pernicious policies that the administration seeks to invoke.