Part I: On Positions and Personalities

Below, I reprint one critical response that I received to yesterday’s blog “On Boundaries and Borders” dealing with the current antics of the Trump administration on asylum seekers who cross the southern border at legal points and individuals who cross the Mexican-American border illegally, whether in search of asylum or simply a better life. The email is well worth reading. It is from a person who has lived for decades in America on the U.S.-Mexican border. I know her well; she is an intelligent, thoughtful, considerate and humane individual. This is an open reply to her.

She wrote:

“Howard, you present a strong academic argument with regard to the border situation and the boundary situation in the United States. It serves no good function to call our president a liar and wish that he and his supporters were behind walls.

“Our social services are stretched beyond their ability to cope and adding 50,000 new requests a year changes some of the country’s ability to provide for the legal poor in the United States.

“Instead of deciding in court whether or not the United States is a safe third country according to your (my italics) treaty, why don’t the lawyers and immigration advocates ask the Canadian government to take five or 10,000 each month. You can start an airlift similar to what the Israelis did in Yemen and receive these people in a much more humane way if you think what is being done here is inhumane. What you see on the television and read in the paper is not what is happening. I have been at an Immigration center in Tornillo Texas and, although there are some issues, they are doing the best they can with the number of immigrants that they have.

“Why doesn’t Canada do something practical and invite those from Central America to come live there rather than looking at the behavior of the Americans. If it is so objectionable, then do something about it except talk.”

The following points are made:

  1. It serves no purpose to call the president of the U.S. a liar;
  2. It perhaps serves less of a purpose to call for Donald Trump (and his supporters) to be put behind walls.
  3. Texan (and perhaps American) social services are stretched beyond their ability to cope.
  4. Adding 50,000 new requests a year changes the country’s ability to provide for the legal poor in the United States.
  5. Going the legal route in accordance with the Canadian Safe First Country treaty to challenge Trump’s immigration policies is not helpful.
  6. Canada should be asked to take in 5,000 or 10,000 per month.
  7. The media misrepresent what is happening in the reception centres.
  8. The people working in those reception centres, such as the one with which she is personally familiar in Tornillo, Texas, are coping as best they can given the influx of such large numbers.
  9. Canada should walk the talk instead of criticizing Trump.

Let me take each point in turn.

  1. Calling President Trump a Liar

Does it serve any purpose to call the president a liar? Normally, definitely not, even when a politician does tell a lie. The rules of civility should give the politician the benefit of the doubt and simply offer a correction. In the case of Trump, that norm needs to be suspended. Why?

  • Trump repeatedly calls people with whom he disagrees liars, mostly when they are not, and, often, much worse;
  • Trump repeatedly refers to those media outlets with the highest standards of proof checking as “the lying media,” echoing, as The Washington Post has noted, Hitler’s branding of the opposition press in Germany in the 1930’s as the “lűgenpresse,” the lying press.
  • In all discourse, truth is a critical reference point; without truth, it is difficult to have either a civil or a rational discussion;
  • As will be seen in my response, the analysis often depends on getting the facts straight;
  • Calling Trump a liar is a fact, not a judgment; he is a well-documented serial liar; the quantity of lies seems to grow over time – recently, he told ten whoppers in one day. (The quality of both the lies and their quantity have been recorded in both The Washington Post and The New York Times);
  • If there are no common objective reference points, you not only have difficulty expressing differences of interpretation and possible policy options, but you undermine the political process itself by creating suspicion about country and civil society institutions; that, in turn, undermines the democratic polity.
  1. Walling in Trump and his supporters

As everyone should know who reads my blogs and other writings, I despise the common use of shame and humiliation. I believe it is dangerous. Yet, during the past week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia (the Red Hen in Lexington), Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was booed at a Mexican restaurant, and Stephen Miller was confronted at another Mexican restaurant. Then we know that the general norms of civility have broken down.

But who initiated the breakdown? Sanders may insist that she tries her “best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully,” but if that were true, who was at the podium in the White House is lying, is being condescending and, following the precedent of her boss, insults others?

When a well-known Trump apologist on Fox News, David Bossie, claimed his fellow Democratic Black panelist, Joel Payne was “out of his cotton-picking mind,” no half-hearted and seemingly insincere apology can make up for such insensitivity. Thankfully, Fox News offered a fulsome apology. “David Bossie’s comments today were deeply offensive and wholly inappropriate. His remarks do not reflect the sentiments of Fox News and we do not in any way condone them.”

Shunning, not engaging in counter insults, is an appropriate response in an effort to wall in serial lying and uncivil behaviour. As the Republican, Ana Navarro, has argued, if “you think the child-separation policy is in a different class — a human rights crime, an inhumane policy for which the public was primed by efforts to dehumanize a group of people (“animals,” “infest,” etc.) — then it is both natural and appropriate for decent human beings to shame and shun the practitioners of such a policy.”

Trump is a dangerous man. His populist approach to politics undermines both institutions and years of worked-out acceptable norms in democratic societies. Conservatives, both the trembling and the brave ones, recognize this. His attitude in substituting fantasy for reality is boundless, and he is in deep need of boundaries, for his own sake, for the sake of the GOP, for the sake of America and for the sake of the world.

  1. Stretching American Social Services

Social services in America are indeed stretched behind the breaking point. But why? Your country spends a fortune incarcerating a far higher percentage of its population than any other Western country. Not only is the jailed person not contributing significantly to the economy; it costs a small fortune to house people this way using the rapidly expanding detention industry in the U.S. The vast majority of those interned are no danger to American communities. Many have been imprisoned for very minor infractions, such as smoking pot, and then for much longer terms than in other Western states.

Secondly, not only are funds diverted from social services to prisons, but Trump, through his tax policies, has put greater pressure on those social services. Third, as we know from all our research on refugees, placing people in detention centres generally does not deter arrivals, though perhaps separating a parent from his child may deter that particular refugee claimant from trying again.  It did Arnovis Guidos Portillo from El Salvador who was deported back to his country without his 7-year-old daughter Meybelin. He said, “I would advise anyone who wants to travel to the United States with their children not to do it. I would never want them to have to walk in my shoes.” He said this even though he has been hunted and persecuted by gang members for two years. Note that under Jeff Sessions’ rule, victims of gang violence are not eligible for refugee status.

Nevertheless. however hard it is to be incarcerated in America, however hard it is to be incarcerated with your children, however even harder it is to be both incarcerated and separated from your children, it is far worse to have to live in fear of your and your children’s lives under the terror regimes of both governments and gangsters. Finally, there are proven far better and far less costly ways of ensuring that the vast majority of refugee claimants turn up for their hearings than incarcerating them. Even under the existing punitive regime, 75% do appear. With tested better models, 94% will; the vast majority of asylum claimants need not be in detention centres.

  1. Helping Refugees versus Helping the American Poor

The claim is made that there is a conflict between helping the deserving American poor and providing support and assistance to refugees. If that were true, why do regimes which take the most away from support for refugees also take the most support away from the deserving poor? Why do regimes that provide reasonable support for refugees, at far less cost to the economy than the American punitive system, also provide greater support for their working poor than the U.S.?

To be continued



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