Steven S. Volk

Steven S. Volk is Emeritus Professor of History at Oberlin College and co-director of the Great Lakes Colleges Association Consortium for Teaching and Learning.

February 29, 2020

Every Day Tells a Story: The Immigrant’s Struggle in the Age of Trump

For better and for worse, the U.S. story is an immigrant’s story. Narratives of indigenous displacement and forced African migration share space with histories of those who found shelter from persecution. Tales of immigrants in the Age of Trump are likely to be harrowing, recounting journeys impelled by fear or hunger, inspired by hope, and repeatedly halted by cruel barriers. Each immigrant’s story is different, but they flow together to form a human river that has reached flood stage. Walls won’t prevent this tide, but they can make life a misery for millions of people. And it is in our response to this human desire to seek security and safety that we observe most clearly who we are and who we are becoming.

October 3, 2013: A boat carrying more than 500 Eritreans and Somalis sank off Lampedusa, a small Italian island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. The boat sank quickly, but survivors floated in the water for five hours, often clinging to the bodies of the dead. Among them was a young Eritrean woman who literally gave birth as she drowned. Her waters had broken in the water. Rescue divers found the dead infant, still attached by the umbilical cord, in her leggings. As Frances Saunders observed, “The longest journey [was] also the shortest journey.”

With more than 70 million refugees and dislocated persons, the world is witnessing the highest level of human displacement on record. And why are so many on the move? The simplest answer is that we have fouled our own nest. The policies pursued by wealthy countries have generated multitudinous crises that have forced millions from their homelands. Our negligence has led to monumental environmental catastrophes: farmlands cracked by prolonged droughts and picked clean by plagues of locust; islands shattered by ferocious hurricanes, fertile plains drowned under flood waters. Climate destabilization, in turn, driven by unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide among other factors, is precipitating military conflicts. Scientists have begun to associate the on-going Syrian conflict with widespread crop failures triggered by the Fertile Crescent’s worst drought on record in 2007-10, the government’s bankrupt agricultural policies and its failure to address the needs of displaced populations. In turn, years of violence have generated almost 7 million refugees, with millions more still on the move.

Closer to home, if Washington’s foreign policies have at times been motived by generosity, all too often they have promoted wars, generated violence, and intensified inequality elsewhere. The gangs that currently terrorize El Salvador and Honduras, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, were literally born on the streets of Los Angeles, founded by children of refugees escaping U.S.-backed wars in their own countries. These same gangs, deported back to Central America, are now driving tens of thousands to flee towards safety. As Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds, “the immigrant story, staple of American culture, must actually be understood, in many cases, as a war story.”

November 21, 2019: U.S. agents in El Paso shuffle Erwin Ardón onto a plane bound for Guatemala. Ardón, a young Honduran denied asylum in the U.S., faced the choice of being sent to the Petén, a remote jungle area in Guatemala, or returned to Honduras where he would likely encounter the same gangs that previously threatened his life.

Even as Trump ratchets up the fears of those living without proper documentation in the U.S., most of his administration’s immigration initiatives this past year have targeted individuals seeking legal entry via asylum petitions, as refugees, or through immigrant visas. Asylum seekers have become exceptionally vulnerable. Brandishing the threat of trade sanctions, the administration rammed through so-called “Safe 3rd Country” rules with Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These require asylum seekers passing through Mexico first seek asylum in one of the countries through which they passed, knowing full well that they lack the ability to protect their own citizens, let alone asylum seekers. Under new rules, these migrants can be deported to a “safe” country or returned to the country they previously fled. According to Human Rights Watch, 138 people deported from the U.S. to El Salvador already have been murdered.

June 24, 2019: Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, a 25-year old Salvadoran desperate to bring his family to safety in the U.S., drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande with his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria. As his wife watched helplessly from the Mexican side of the river, a strong current pulled Oscar and his daughter under. The photograph of their bodies washed up on the U.S. shore, her tiny head tucked inside his T-shirt, an arm draped over his neck, is a portrait of what we have become, a source of shame, sadness and outrage.

Those seeking asylum are led to embark on desperate journeys to acquire what U.S. and international law promise them, but, under Trump, have been removed. The “Migrant Protection Protocols,” forced onto Mexico last year, pushed more than 62,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico where they wait, far from legal support and in perilous conditions, for their cases to be called. A recent report from Doctors Without Borders found that 80% of migrants waiting in Nuevo Laredo under MPP have been abducted by local drug cartels, and nearly half have suffered violent attacks. Those who make it to their “hearings” after months of waiting face almost certain disappointment. Of the nearly 30,000 such cases rushed through make-shift courts in seven border towns through the end of 2019, only 187 were granted asylum.

Refugees must confront equal contempt. This year, the administration lowered its cap on refugees to 18,000, the lowest since the program began in 1980, and new rules allow local communities to refuse their resettlement. At an October 2019 rally in Minneapolis, Trump attacked that city’s Somali refugees as a raucous white crowd cheered.

January 27, 2020: The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, lifted a nation-wide injunction on the implementation of new “public charge” rules impacting both prospective immigrants and current legal permanent residents. The ruling led Patricia, an immigrant in California without proper documentation, to fear that her U.S. citizen children would be taken away if she received food stamps. The new rules, beyond a doubt, are as much about sowing fear as saving money.

New regulations to be implemented on Feb. 24, 2020 will radically limit immigration visas to poorer applicants. Embassy or consular officials can declare as inadmissible individuals who, in their opinion, may in the future require public support such as food stamps, Medicaid, or housing. Further, applicants will no longer be able to include the assets of their petitioning family members or other sponsors when seeking a visa. The new rules further limit access to public funds by legal permanent residents. A draft regulation currently being circulated by the Department of Justice would make it easier to deport green card holders who use public benefits. Were these rules in place a century earlier, they would have prevented Wolf-Leib Glosser, a poor Jew from Belarus, from entering the country as he had only $8 to his name. It is no small irony that Glosser’s grandson, Stephen Miller, is the prime architect of Trump’s anti-immigrant policy.

January 31, 2020: Mika Moses’ mother and siblings moved to Minnesota in 1991, fleeing the inter-religious riots that killed hundreds in their northern Nigerian town. Mika soon joined them, but has waited since for his wife and their daughter. His hopes of bringing them on family reunification visas were dashed when the administration announced a ban on immigration from Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar.

The latest immigration ban follows the “Muslim ban” of 2017 which excluded citizens from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. The new measure is brazenly anti-Black, barring nearly a quarter Africa’s 1.2 billion people. These bans, in parallel with the administration’s policies taking aim at refugees and asylum seekers, indicate that Trump is using rule-making and regulatory authority to return the United States to an immigration system that echoes the racist National Origins Act of 1924, abandoned by Congress in 1965. His radical remaking of the immigration system is transpiring without congressional approval or, in the case of border wall funding, in defiance of Congress.


The stories of Erwin, Oscar, Angel Valeria, Patricia, Mika, and countless unnamed others, speak to lives lost and hopes crushed by this administration’s xenophobic cruelty. Elaine Scarry observed that “the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.” What we see most clearly in these immigrant narratives is the picture of a country that has lost its capacity to imagine other lives, a country that has lost its way. We are in danger of constructing barriers stronger than Trump’s “big beautiful” wall when – through weariness, apathy, indifference, or a feeling of impotence – we lose our capacity to imagine those other lives, or even, for most of us, the stories of our own grandparents.

In a Senate hearing in 1954, a Boston lawyer by the name of Joseph Welch turned the tide against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror, asking him: “Have you no sense of decency?" Trump and those who uphold his racist reshaping of immigration policy have shown themselves to be utterly shameless. They count on their supporters to promote this xenophobic cant, and on the rest of us to be so battered by their daily assaults that we, as well, abandon our sense of decency. We can’t. The struggle for the immigrant is a struggle for human dignity, one that we share with those born Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria, Eritrea…everywhere.