The group of Central American asylum seekers, who featured so prominently in the closing debates of the 2018 midterm elections, recently arrived at the United States-Mexico border near San Diego and Tijuana with the intent to apply for asylum in the U.S. Just like any other asylum seekers, they were fleeing their homes because they were in imminent danger there and sought safety. Told they may have to wait as many as six weeks at the border before their claims will begin to be processed, the group planned to stage a peaceful march on Sunday, Nov. 25 to draw attention to their situation. After some of the thousands gathered attempted to cross the border and threw rocks, U.S. Border Patrol agents responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd, many of whom were families with small children. Even though the Geneva conventions forbids the use of tear gas in warfare, many countries including the U.S. use it domestically for crowd control, sometimes with deadly results.This incident was appalling; it was also avoidable.

We’ve known about this group for a long time; back in October, before the elections, they received extensive news coverage and U.S. President Donald Trump was calling these refugees “an invasion” and deploying troops to the border in a transparent attempt at fear-mongering made all the more conspicuous by its sudden cessation immediately after the election. But if we really wanted to be prepared, we should have sent judges, not soldiers, because although the words and actions of the president implied otherwise, it is perfectly legal to seek asylum in the United States. The kind of asylum these people intend to apply for, known as affirmative asylum, can be sought by anyone who is at a legal point of entry or has been in the country for less than a year. The process is long and complicated, sometimes even taking months, but essentially it requires proving that the applicant would likely be endangered were they to return to their home country. The best way to reduce illegal immigration is not through fear or cruelty, but by making it easier for people to immigrate legally. If we make it harder for people to enter the way we want them to, then we will force them to seek other ways in. In the long term, taking actions to increase stability and reduce strife in Central America would mean that there are less people fleeing in the first place.

Unfortunately, not only has the Trump administration not taken actions to increase the efficiency of this process, it has implemented policies which are contributing to the increasing number of asylum seekers stuck waiting at the border, raising tension that leads to incidents like the one on Sunday. For a long time, U.S. policy was to allow asylum seekers into the country while their cases were processed, sometimes briefly holding them in Federal custody for the initial stages of the process. The system wasn’t perfect, but in general it worked, and almost all families showed up for their court hearings. Now, new policies that force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their claims are decided will make it borderline impossible for some people to even apply for asylum and, combined with a dramatic reduction in the number of asylum claims processed every day, will lead to more and more desperate people just waiting at the border with nowhere to go. Keep in mind, the people suffering here are the people trying to enter the country legally. But for the administration, it seems, this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of the system. Though Trump and his allies have claimed that they are opposed to illegal immigration, their attacks on illegal immigrants are transparent dog whistles about all immigrants, and in reality many of their policies have been about making it harder for people to immigrate legally.

This is no way to treat asylum seekers; to borrow some familiar words, these are the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” free from fear, free from persecution, free from violence and we have the power to grant them that freedom they desperately seek. Surely anyone willing to leave everything behind and walk hundreds of miles looking for a better life deserves a chance to get it. We are not weakened by immigrants, we are strengthened by them.

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