Like so much about the incoming administration, president-elect Donald Trump’s intentions for undocumented immigrants remain unclear. But he seems likely to go forward with a substantial program of “getting them out of our country.”
In his first major post-election interview, Trump announced that he plans to deport two or even three million immigrants “here illegally,” “people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers.” In reality, as Vox’s Dara Lind explains, there simply aren’t two or three million undocumented immigrants with criminal records, much less gang members and drug dealers.
The people Trump would expel would mostly be residents with green cards who arrived as children and ended up with criminal convictions, immigrants who returned here to reunite with loved ones despite a prior deportation, and, more likely than not, thousands of undocumented workers swept up in raids, like the restaurant employees arrested recently in Buffalo. (In 2013, the Obama administration claimed to be following a “felons not families” deportation model, but less than half of the roughly 438,000 immigrants removed from the country that year were actually convicted of crimes.)
In other words, Trump is proposing an all-out assault on immigrants, one with tragic consequences for the people deported, for their friends, and for their families. And if he carries through on his promises, there would also be secondary victims — including the white working-class people who voted for Trump.
The Republicans have an important reason to proceed with mass deportations: they find themselves in a paradoxically weak position.
As of January 20, they’ll control most of the governmental apparatus — the House, the Senate, and the presidency. This will give them a free hand to impose their economic program of massive tax cuts for the superrich and equally massive cutbacks in benefits and services for everyone else. At the same time, the incoming government will be pursuing its ambitious agenda with only a narrow and unstable base of support — and some serious popular opposition.
The polarization of US society has reached a new extreme following an election in which neither side won a majority and the official loser received some 2.8 million more votes than the official victor. Trump is despised by the millions who cast a vote against him and by many of the people who sat out the election — and he can look forward to losing millions of his own supporters once they experience what the Republican economic plan means in practice.
How will Trump’s aging white voters react, for instance, if House speaker Paul Ryan succeeds in privatizing Medicare?
No wonder Trump and his advisers were freaked out by the spontaneous protests that broke out around the country after the November 8 elections.
If the Republicans hope to implement their economic agenda in the face of such opposition, they’ll need to apply some combination of distraction and repression — shock therapy, in the words of Naomi Klein’s 2007 book.
A program of mass deportations would fit the bill. The spectacle of immigrants being herded into police vans would satisfy the more xenophobic of Trump’s supporters and help them forget their own worsening economic situation, while for much of the population the raids would provide an intimidating example of what could happen to people the Trump government decides to target.
The Trump transition process certainly points toward a hard line on deportations. The nominee for attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, is a longtime advocate of harsh measures against the undocumented; as Justice Department head, he will run the immigration court system.
General John Kelly, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which enforces immigration laws, is regularly described in the media as less extreme, but the choice of a general is disturbing. The last general to head the immigration enforcement apparatus was Joseph Swing. He oversaw “Operation Wetback,” the massive, brutal 1954–55 program that rounded up and deported tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants — along with many Mexican-American citizens — without even a semblance of due process.
Trump’s main transition adviser on immigration appears to be Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, an author of Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant measure, SB 1070, and of similar measures in several other states. During the George W. Bush administration, Kobach designed the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), an ostensibly antiterrorist program requiring the registration of male non-citizens, mostly from countries with largely Muslim populations. NSEERS compiled the names of nearly one hundred thousand immigrants and visitors and led to the deportation of almost fourteen thousand, many for minor immigration offenses. Exactly zero terrorists were caught.
While it’s not clear whether Kobach will get a post in the Trump administration, he still appears to be in the running: he had a two-hour meeting with the president-elect on December 15.
From Protest to Resistance
If Trump goes ahead with his promised deportation raids, they will be met with a strong response from immigrant communities. We’ve already seen the creative protests mounted by the immigrant youths known as Dreamers, who successfully pressured President Obama to set up the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA, a program which Trump has promised to eliminate when he takes office). We can expect immigrant activists to move from protests to active resistance if mass roundups begin.
A crucial factor in this resistance would be the reaction of those who aren’t immediately affected. Will citizens and authorized residents answer calls to action from immigrant communities? Expressions of solidarity would probably require varying levels of commitment, ranging from legal support, such as backing court challenges or joining permitted protests, to possible civil disobedience — establishing sanctuaries for immigrants in religious institutions, for example, or organizing nonviolent direct actions physically blocking enforcement operations.
Above all, immigrant rights activists will have to conduct broad outreach work in the general population — including among the white working-class people who voted for Trump.
In many ways this won’t be as difficult as the media’s coverage of the “alt-right” bigots might lead us to believe. The great majority of the US public — 75 percent — feel that “undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay legally if certain requirements are met,” according to a Pew Research Center survey from April 2016. The people calling for mass deportations are actually a minority, even among Republicans. But we must work to convert this majority sentiment into active support.
That means two things. First, publicizing the human carnage left by deportation raids.
The victims are often people who have lived in the United States for most of their lives and feel as “American” as anyone born here. And when they’re expelled, the results can be lethal. Since 2014 the Obama administration has trained its sights on people who fled north to escape violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. An academic study in late 2015 found that in just two years, as many as eighty-three deportees had been murdered after being forcibly returned to their countries.
Second, expanding the immigrant rights movement requires explaining how mass deportations drive a wedge between workers.
Our rulers use racism and xenophobia to divide us and weaken our collective power. As Martin Luther King explained at the conclusion of the 1965 Selma march, white racism after the Civil War helped create a situation where “the Southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low” and a potential movement uniting white and black workers “was crippled and eventually destroyed.” During the primary, Bernie Sanders noted that Islamophobia and anti-immigrant prejudices are used “to obfuscate the real problems facing our society.”
For those who aren’t undocumented, opposing roundups of other working people is the right thing to do. But if the aspiration is economic security and workplace rights, it’s also in their self-interest.