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How to talk about Trump’s 'zero tolerance' policy without reinforcing anti-immigrant ideas

Media Uncovered  |  By Carly Goodman, Jun 18, 2018
The migrant caravan arriving at the U.S. -- Mexico border.

The migrant caravan arriving at the U.S. - Mexico border.

Photo: Cuartoscuro.com / Omar Martínez

Take action against family separation and detention. Stop ICE and Border Patrol from separating families.

Our immigration policies should recognize that no matter where we were born, all people deserve to be treated humanely. 

But right now we are seeing the devastating effects of militarized immigration enforcement, as the Trump administration ramps up raids, detentions, and deportations of immigrants. The administration is also treating asylum seekers and others arriving to our country inhumanely, limiting their access to due process, separating children from their parents, and upholding a so-called "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting all people crossing the border between ports of entry.  

While Trump has accelerated punitive enforcement measures and introduced new cruel policies, much of what we are seeing today has roots in the past. For years the United States has treated immigrants as a threat to be managed rather than human beings who are our co-workers, friends, families, and neighbors. 

By accepting the overall “threat narrative,” and defending specific individuals or groups of immigrants, advocates can unwittingly reinforce harmful ideas about immigrants and fail to advance reasonable policies that treat everybody humanely. Bad messaging – even if well-intentioned – can do more harm than good. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you talk about immigration: 

1.  Immigrants are people who move – and are part of “us.”

Always use inclusive language that emphasizes immigrants’ humanity and full membership in our communities: our neighbors, friends, and families. 

2. Avoid “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants” talk.

All people deserve to be treated humanely, whether they were valedictorians or not, whether they have a legal asylum claim or not, whether they were brought to the U.S. as children or came here on their own. 

When people say, for example, that young people came to the U.S. “through no fault of their own,” it opens the door to thinking that others deserve blame for coming to this country. But being an undocumented immigrant is not a moral failing, it is the result of racist and exclusionary immigration laws.

Similarly when the Obama administration said it wished to deport “felons, not families,” it not only rested on a false dichotomy (people who have been convicted of crimes have families, after all) but also reinforced the fusion of immigration and “threat” in the public conversation. 

The idea that some immigrants deserve compassion and others do not undermines support for humane treatment for all – so avoid divisive language.

3. Check your assumptions – and reject the threat narrative.

Welcoming new people and encouraging immigration has been a core part of the American story. Yet throughout history, nativists and immigration restrictionists have portrayed newcomers as an economic, cultural, or security threat. Unfortunately, however unfounded, threat narratives have dominated our public conversation about immigrants.

That’s why it’s so important that you don’t reinforce the idea that any immigrants should be excluded, restricted, or deported. 

Militarizing immigration enforcement, expanding immigrant jails to cage people, and prosecuting everybody at the border does not make us safer – indeed, this anti-immigrant machinery irreparably harms and instills fear in our communities. Nobody should be deported, and immigrants should not be treated as a threat - and our language should reflect it.

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.

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