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for people who care about the West

Border and immigration agents have too much power

In July, ICE sent German foreign exchange students back home.

 

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Salida, Colorado.


Eight German exchange students arrived at Denver International Airport on July 28. They were excited about their upcoming month-long stay with their Chaffee County, Colorado, host families. But instead of starting their “Rocky Mountain Language Adventure” in and around the town of Salida, they were handcuffed once they got off the plane, and their cellphones were confiscated.

They must have been in shock, but that wasn’t all: They were then forced to spend the night at the infamous 1,600-bed Aurora detention facility run by ICE, Immigration Customs and Enforcement, dressed in jail clothes. Next day, they were put on a flight and sent back home to Germany.

Those German students were part of a long-established program designed to improve their English and let them experience a sense of immersion in American life. Students stay with a variety of families and volunteer at county businesses and nonprofit organizations. Instead, these young Germans ran headfirst into our growing American nativist wall.

President Donald Trump's “beautiful wall” may never be built along the Mexican border, but it’s a powerful psychological symbol. If the last elections mean anything, they mean that politicians in the West can run and win on old-time nativist platforms again. The key tenet of nativism is keeping foreign ideas and foreign people out. Keeping good Americans home is the other half of the plan. Student exchange programs are anathema on both counts.

The philosophy of nativism stands tough on foreign ideas and institutions being brought into our Rocky Mountain West. Here in Colorado, plenty of politicians once ran for office and won on nativist platforms during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, Gov. Clarence Morley won by loudly proclaiming his outright hostility to Italians and eastern Europeans, as well as Catholics, Jews and minorities in general. He called Catholicism a great heresy and insisted that immigrants would seduce our young with ideas about drinking wine and producing it in California (of all places). How different is that from President Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants today?

Of course, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman did not accuse the German students this summer of seeking to corrupt our young with socialist ideas. That would have been too much of a throwback to the 1920s. On the other hand, Agent Jaime Ruiz was not exactly open to questions about why these young Germans were treated the way they were.

German exchange students with traveler’s visas were deported because ICE determined that they didn’t have the correct type.
German Missions in the United States

He said that they were deported because they had only traveler’s visas, and those were invalid because the young people were planning to “work” during their stays. The volunteer work that these students do here has never been a problem in the past. No one seriously suggests that volunteering for a few weeks at an animal shelter or coffeehouse during a one-month stay could be taking jobs from Americans.

That these border agents seem to have been granted such huge and on-the-spot powers is perhaps not surprising. After all, we’ve seen the president encourage police to rough up suspects, and that “cop as local god” attitude is sure to rub off on ICE agents. Even letters of complaint from both Colorado senators, Michael Bennet, D, and Cory Gardner, R, received only stock responses from ICE. 

But the Colorado response to the dilemma of the German students has been heartening. Several locals wrote letters of apology to the students, and after a “GoFundMe” Facebook account was opened, it collected enough money to reimburse the students for their travel expenses. The money was important because each student had had to pay $1,300 for airfare. Most came from working families, and the students had raised the money in a variety of ways, including working odd jobs. In the last few weeks, some of the German students have written back, saying they were touched by the generosity of Westerners and thanking everyone for revealing a part of America they didn’t know existed.

But this debacle raises questions. How many of our citizens support this newly revived nativism? How many support the nearly divine powers of federal immigration agents at our airports? The physical Mexican border wall may never be built, but what do we do about the nativist wall these German students hit head-on? 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.