Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.

Border of Cruelty

Democracy in Danger / Episode 16

This image shows a “bollard-style” wall hung with barbed wire along the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz. President Trump came to office in 2016 vowing to “build the wall” — and to make Mexico pay for it. Construction of new barriers did not begin until February 2019, after a protracted legal battle over the plan and how it would be funded. A lawsuit brought by House Democrats challenging the wall was reinstated in federal court this summer.

Photograph by Rebekah Zemansky via

Last month we learned that 545 immigrant children remained stranded in the United States, separated from their families: casualties of the president’s hard-nosed stance on immigration. And yet, despite all the tough talk and draconian policies, Trump’s administration hasn’t deported people as aggressively as his predecessor. So as Americans head to the polls this week, what should they make of this legacy, and what hope is there for a more humane future? Political scientist Elizabeth Cohen has some answers.



About our guest

Elizabeth F. Cohen is a professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and this year she is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at Princeton University. Cohen has written four books, most recently Illegal: How America’s Lawless Immigration Regime Threatens Us All (Basic Books, 2020). Her op-eds have appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post and Politico, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @alixabeth.

This episode was recorded in October and posted on Nov. 2, 2020.

What we’re reading

By our guest

The United States should stop terrorizing undocumented migrants and violating the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, Cohen argues, in Illegal.

In Citizenship (Polity Press, 2019) together with co-author Cyril Ghosh, Cohen writes about how in many liberal democracies the privileges of citizenship have become more exclusive over the last 20 years, creating in effect a global caste system. 

She and Jason Stanley (one of our guests last month) consider the curious role of “critical race theory” in this year’s election, in this recent piece for Spain’s El País. They argue that the white nationalism that fueled anti-immigration sentiment among Trump supporters in 2016 is now being turned on Americans themselves.

Every time the United States has adopted demographic controls on immigration, such as the family reunification and lottery systems, they did not achieve their intended results, Cohen writes in this 2019 essay in The Atlantic.

In 2017, she predicted for Politico that President Trump’s policies would paradoxically increase America’s undocumented population, because of our demand for cheap labor. She was right.

And Cohen made the case, in 2013, that the nation’s founders accepted foreign-born residents — including thousands of British Loyalists — more readily than we do today. She argues that granting citizenship based on good behavior and time spent in the country, as in the early days of the Republic, would better honor the spirit of liberty.

From around the web

Last month The New York Times reported that the plan to separate migrant children from their parents went right up to the top of the Justice Department, with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, pressuring U.S. attorneys on the border to do the president’s bidding.

Read about the inhumane conditions imposed on children in U.S. custody; the squalid camps that have sprung up in Mexico to house asylum seekers who are turned away; and the allegations that immigration officers used torture to force Cameroonians detained in Mississippi to sign their own deportation orders.

But cruelty, Adam Serwer says, has always been the point. He connects such brutal practices to America’s history of slavery and racial oppression.

Want to delve deeper into the differences between President Obama’s and President Trump’s approaches to unauthorized immigration? Check out this 2018 story in Vox.


A transcript of this episode is available here

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