‘What Part of Illegal Don’t You Understand?’

Really good long read by Sonia Nazario, mix of personal account and policy discussion (excerpt):

My family has been running from danger for nearly 100 years. The Nazarios are refugees; their remnants have scattered around the world to survive. My Jewish mother fled Poland in 1933. My Christian father fled Syria two years earlier. They met and married in Argentina, whose right-wing dictatorship imprisoned and almost killed my sister. By giving us a home, the United States saved our lives.

Would it do the same today?

The Trump administration has barred those seeking refuge from our borders and turned our immigration courts into a joke. This is a betrayal of America’s decades-long role as a world leader in refugee protection. It also breaks our own laws and treaty commitments, which say we will take people in, give them a fair court hearing and not return them to harm.

But it is not a total historical anomaly. America has gone through spasms of nativism before. In 1939, Congress tabled a bill to take in 20,000 Jewish children, and the SS St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish refugees, was turned away from the docks; hundreds aboard were murdered in the Holocaust.

Then, as now, many on both the right and the left have argued that the choice Americans face on immigration and asylum is between zero tolerance and opening the floodgates. But this is a false choice. We can have an immigration policy that is sane and humane.


The American government generally does not allow innocent people to be imprisoned, raped and shot in the back. These are the kinds of experiences refugees who come here seeking safety are fleeing.

We can have a pragmatic, compassionate refugee policy. We don’t have to choose between letting everyone in and no one in.

Conservatives may not like this, but we have to let through people who say they are afraid. Allow applicants into the United States and monitor them until their court hearings (which nine in 10 do show up for). Don’t lock them up, as we are doing with some 60,000 immigrants a night, in places where they get inadequate medical care. At least seven migrant children have died in immigration custody since 2018. This simply didn’t happen before. Our government is killing children through neglect.

Make the court process fair; make it fitting of our country. Take our increasingly politicized immigration courts out of the Department of Justice and make them independent. Make sure that immigrant children have a government-funded lawyer, since most cannot afford representation, which basically guarantees they will lose. From October 2017 to June 2018, 70 babies went to court alone.

Liberals might not like this, but we also have to deport migrants who lose their cases. President Trump refers to asylum as a “loophole” in our system. That’s bogus. Yet there is another loophole that must be addressed: A vast majority of those who lose their asylum cases don’t leave the country. They stay and blend into the woodwork. This rightfully riles Americans who believe these unsuccessful asylum-seekers are thumbing their noses at our legal process. Require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus on deporting people who have just lost their asylum cases, not the parent who has been here 30 years.

Democrats need to get woke and realize that any immigration reform plan has to show they believe in the rule of law. I’ve lived in a country with no laws. Democrats don’t want that. We cannot take in everyone, so we need to prioritize those fleeing harm. Stop talking about idiotic things like open borders. Or liberals will keep losing on this issue.

There’s something ready-made for Americans who care about this travesty to lobby for: the Refugee Protection Act, introduced in Congress in November. It would require the United States to take in far more refugees, including at least 100,000 a year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras alone. It would prevent the government from forcing people to apply for asylum in other countries they passed through on the way here, and prohibit ports of entry from pleading overcrowding as an excuse to turn people away. It would exempt migrants from criminal prosecution for crossing without documents, and allow asylum-seekers to be released temporarily in the United States if they pose no risk to public safety. It would reverse a Trump administration decision that bars people fleeing domestic or gang violence from obtaining asylum. And it would require our government to appoint lawyers for migrant children.

Americans need to stop whining and to ride Congress to pass this bill. Every one of my fellow Jews in this country should have their hair on fire over this — especially folks like Jared Kushner, whose Polish family, like mine, found safety here.

I often get asked: What part of “illegal” don’t you understand? Well, our laws say we have to help people who are running for their lives. Take it from a Nazario: President Trump is the one who has broken the law.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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