When President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that, “We cannot allow our country to be overrun by illegal immigrants,” and blamed Democrats for spreading allegedly “phony stories of sadness and grief,” I couldn’t stop thinking about 6-year-old Jimena Valencia Madrid.
Jimena is the Salvadoran girl who was separated from her mother at the Texas border on June 13 as part of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, and placed in a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention center in Phoenix.
Luckily for her, her voice was recorded in a secret audio tape obtained by ProPublica. In the tape, you can hear children between the ages of 4 and 10 crying inconsolably, and pleading for “Mama” and “Papa.”
And between the sobs, you can hear Jimena pleading for someone to call her aunt in Houston. She had memorized the phone number and kept repeating in Spanish. Shortly before crossing the border, her mother had drilled her to memorize that telephone number and insisted that she not forget it under any circumstances if they were separated.
“Jimena’s ability to recall her aunt’s phone number through the trauma of that separation has, so far, kept her from becoming lost in a system that has taken more than 2,300 immigrant children from their parents,” ProPublica reporter Ginger Thompson wrote.
Indeed, it is not clear what will happen to the babies and children who may not recall any relative’s telephone numbers or who may be even too young to know their last names or addresses.
Under pressure, Trump last week signed an executive order rescinding his own policy of forced separation of immigrant families. But the order might not cover the more than 2,000 children who already have been separated from their parents.
What was Jimena’s crime? Were her parents terrorists? Did her mother, Cindy, deserve to be locked up and separated from her child for trying to seek asylum in the United States?
Of course not. Like many Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran refugees, she was fleeing one of the world’s most violent countries, trying to save her child from being recruited or murdered by criminal gangs. In some Central American towns, if you don’t pay protection money or cooperate with the gangs, they kill your child.
Under the Obama and Bush administrations, most asylum seekers were caught and released – many of them with electronic bracelets – until their asylum hearings. Virtually all of them showed up at their court appointments.
The most outrageous part of Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy is that it’s all a big hoax.
Contrary to what Trumps tells us every day, there is no immigration crisis or danger of this country being “overrun” by undocumented immigrants. Illegal immigration, while marginally up in recent months, is only a fraction of what it was several years ago.
U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions, a good measure for illegal immigration flows, have fallen from 1.7 million in 2000 to 310,000 last year. So where’s Trump’s immigration crisis?
And at a time when the U.S. economy is growing and unemployment is at a record low 3.9 percent, there is no significant danger of foreigners taking away U.S. jobs. On the contrary, if you talk with any hotel or restaurant owner, or anybody in the construction business, most will tell you that there is a shortage of people to fill their jobs.
And, finally, it’s not true – as Trump claims – that Mexican and Central American immigrants bring crime to this country. On the contrary, most studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S.-born Americans.
So what’s behind Trump’s crusade to build a border wall, deport “DREAMers” and lock up asylum seekers? As I explained in my previous column, Trump is exploiting for his own political gain the racial anxieties of millions of white Americans who resent the fact that this country is becoming less white.
But we should not allow children like Jimena to be used by Trump as pawns in his un-American war against immigrants. And when he claims that these are “phony stories of anger and grief” spread by Democrats and the media, we should respond: “We are all Jimena Valencia!”
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.