Last week’s “60 Minute” interview with president elect Donald Trump prompted headlines suggesting that he might be “softening” his immigration stance, compared to his extreme campaign proposal to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. The media have it wrong.
Those of us who have worked to promote sensible and humane policies for decades are bracing for what may very well be an all-out war on immigrants of unprecedented scope and intensity.
Some news reports have offered an unjustifiably charitable interpretation of Mr. Trump’s recent statement to suggest that he is becoming more “targeted.” This view was based on a few short statements where he described vague plans to immediately deport or incarcerate those with “criminal records ― gang members, drug dealers, probably 2 million, it could even be 3 million” that are “here illegally.” Mr. Trump’s numbers are wrong, and his vision is anything but “soft.” In fact, it is terrifying.
To realize these numbers during a four-year term, to say nothing of a shorter “immediate” timeframe, would require deportation rates never before experienced in this country. This, despite the fact that migration levels to the United States are relatively low and that the current administration already broke the record for removal of immigrants, earning President Obama the title of “deporter in chief” in some circles. It took the Obama administration eight years to deport 2.5 million immigrants, while Mr. Trump apparently aims to hit those numbers in four years or less. Unlike Presidents Bush and Obama, both of whom used deportations as a political pawn in failed efforts to secure immigration reforms, the President Elect has never envisioned a path to citizenship for our nation’s immigrants.
The population as described by Mr. Trump simply does not exist. Trump’s depiction of 2-3 million immigrants as “illegal,” criminal and dangerous is a myth, rooted in poor math and biased fear-mongering. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has pointed out that the likely source for the numbers is a 2012 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimate of 1.9 million “removable criminal aliens.” But more than half of this group are legally living and working in the United States. In typical Trumpian exaggeration, the President-Elect seems to have ignored that fact, and then tacked on an additional million to the DHS estimate to arrive at the fabricated 3 million.
Though Mr. Trump invokes stereotypes and fears of “dangerous illegal immigrants,” all those who’ve had a run in with the law are threatened, even those who are living and working with proper documentation, with families and no memories of a different home.
Research shows that immigrants, including those without proper documentation, are overwhelmingly law-abiding. MPI estimates that just 820,000 of the 1.9 million “criminal aliens,” are undocumented (“illegal” in Trump’s view) immigrants with criminal convictions, and just 300,000 of them are likely to have a felony conviction. But if Trump recognizes a distinction between undocumented people and those with legal authorization to reside and work in the U.S., it will not stop him from sweeping them all into his “criminal alien” dragnet.
To reach his target of 2-3 million in two to four years, Mr. Trump would have to significantly broaden the net of who is imprisoned or removed, and the mechanisms for doing so —at astronomical cost to families, communities, and taxpayers.
Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and leading architect of Draconian anti-immigrant laws such as Arizona’s notorious “papers please” SB1070 law used to profile and harass suspected immigrants, is Donald Trump’s chief immigration enforcement guru. Instead of deporting only those convicted, Kobach proposes too instead scrap due process protections and deport immigrants who are arrested on suspicion of crimes or gang affiliation. In this model, local law enforcement becomes prosecutor, judge, and immigration officer.
Kobach also advocates using local police officers and jailers as the “eyes and ears of the federal government,” turning arrestees directly over to ICE for deportation. This will likely entail a rapid expansion of “287g,” a federal provision that “cross-designates” local law enforcement to serve as immigration enforcement agents, commissioning them to identify, process, and detain people suspected of being undocumented.
Hard-liners are calling for resurrection of Secure Communities, a dragnet program that put warrantless “detainers” on those suspected of being undocumented in county jails and state prisons, so that they could be held beyond their lawful release date and taken into custody by ICE. By the time the program had been implemented in more than a thousand state and local jurisdictions, it was clear that it produced widespread racial profiling, at huge local costs since no federal funding was provided for implementation. And program data indicated that the great majority of people flagged by ICE for detention were charged with non-serious, low-level drug and property offenses.
Resistance to Secure Communities quickly grew, and by 2015 DHS had replaced it with a “Priority Enforcement Program,” which purported to provide stricter guidelines to prioritize only people convicted of serious crimes. Recent data from PEP, however, indicates that few ICE officials in the field are following the new guidelines, with most detainers being issued for people with no criminal conviction. The most frequent offenses were drunk driving, miscellaneous assaults, and selling marijuana. Clearly, PEP’s minimal prioritization efforts will quickly crumble in the face of the colossal “deportation force” envisioned by Trump and Kobach.
The nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General raises a critical danger for those who find themselves ensnared in the U.S. immigration enforcement dragnet. Sessions is the most prominent immigration hard-liner in the Senate. His placement at the top of the Department of Justice will inevitably lead to a further surge in an already substantial number of individuals who have convictions not for any serious crime, but instead due to the criminalization of immigration itself.
As recently as last year, Sessions proposed increased mandatory sentences for re-entry, which could increase the federal prison system by 30 percent. Increased immigrant prosecution and incarceration for entry and re-entry are a driving force in the federal justice system, making up half of the entire federal prosecution docket in 2015. The federal prison population is now made of 23 percent non-citizens.
Despite the enormous costs and the wasted lives, research has not found criminalization to be an effective deterrent to migration, which is more strongly influenced by family ties and economic circumstances.
But a majority in our nation opposes Mr. Trump’s extreme and hateful vision for immigrants. Surveys of Trump supporters, including exit polls, show that the majority support pathways to citizenship, which are not in Mr. Trump’s plans. Universities and colleges are declaring themselves sanctuary campuses. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck will not use local police to check papers or turn low-level offenders over to federal agents. Cities like New York, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Nashville, and others plan to fight Trump’s immigration agenda, with Mayor de Blasio vowing to destroy municipal identification records for immigrants rather than hand them over to immigration enforcement authorities. Churches across the country are declaring themselves sanctuaries to defend against pending deportations.
We should take Trump at his word, and anticipate that his administration will unleash a deportation regime unprecedented in recent U.S. history. We also must resist that regime at many levels by uniting with our immigrant friends, neighbors, loved ones, coworkers, and classmates in the fight for policies and programs that keep families and communities intact.