President Trump's frustrations with immigration and his inability to build (or even finance) a wall at our southern border has led to the unimaginable: the United States military at the border firing teargas at asylum seekers — most of whom are women and children. It was disconcerting to watch from the comfort of our Thanksgiving holiday as the gas drifted toward Tijuana into the eyes of the innocent.
But it did happen. It's almost all illegal. And it's a crisis created entirely by President Trump.
The United States, since the conclusion of the Second World War, has led the Western world in offering protection to asylum seekers. The horrors of the European holocaust forced America to listen more carefully to the pleas of those running (literally) for their lives. Current asylum law, encoded in international treaty and national law, mandates the United States government to consider asylum pleas from people who fear for their lives in foreign lands.
The president and his team of nationalists/nativists have declared, in certain violation of international and federal law, that asylum seekers from Central America shall not set foot on U.S. soil, which makes it impossible for people to file a petition. An asylum petition can only be made upon arrival in the United States.
To deter people from filing, Trump has sent active duty military troops (deployed on U.S. soil) as a sort of shield. But even before deploying troops, the Trump administration had been laying the groundwork for this inhumane spectacle by stalling the procedure and refusing to process families seeking asylum along the border.
The president, of course, would be fully authorized to send the military to defend against an invading foreign army or other bellicose actors, but no one believes that a few thousand unarmed, poor Central Americans represent any sort of threat to this nation's sovereignty or democracy.
There is a long history of hostilities and disproportionate responses at the border: In 1916, Pancho Villa raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and some innocent bystanders were killed. The U.S. responded by spending $130 million to send a cavalry force (under the command of General John Pershing) that could never capture the wily Mexican revolutionary. Seventy years prior, the U.S. government annexed half of our neighbor's territory in a war declared after the Mexican government refused to give up their territory voluntarily.
President Trump is the only serious threat to our democracy, not poor and desperate immigrants from Central America. The Trump administration (and all administrations) are prohibited by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act from using the army for policing activities within United States territory. Soon, we believe, the courts will hear challenges to the president's use of the military and judges will certainly question how long-standing, settled asylum laws and traditions can be tossed aside based on the whims of a capricious president, a rogue government.
We can drown in this sea of lawlessness, or we can fight back. We don't recommend responding with violence, but these times require action and we draw inspiration from the civil disobedience developed in 19th-century New England. Henry David Thoreau famously went to jail for refusing to pay the taxes that he knew would be used to finance the 1846 war against Mexico (mentioned above); Thoreau — rightfully — declared that war immoral and illegal.
Good people in Memphis, right now, are fighting against the madness; they're still paying their taxes but have adopted the role of the good Samaritan by helping people (mostly women and children) who have faced illegal family separation and dubious detentions here in America. This group known as "Migration Is Beautiful" (a.k.a. The Mariposa Collective) consists of about 25 people here — most of whom speak Spanish. They organize, and meet the five buses that arrive to Memphis each day carrying people recently released from detention. Released to relatives across the country, the U.S. government forces these travelers to wear ankle monitors, and most have no possessions, no money, and no food.
Greeting these weary families with sandwiches, medicine, and toys for the children, the best of Memphis meets those who have seen and suffered the worst of the federal government. These Memphians are the people who define and sustain our democracy; these are the people who, again and again, make America great.
Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and the Board Chair of Latino Memphis. Michael LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.