clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What 11 million unauthorized immigrants heard from Donald Trump: be very afraid

Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Phoenix Wednesday night couldn’t have been clearer: If you live without papers in America, you should live in fear.

Imagine you were watching Trump’s speech tonight not because you’re following the campaign for kicks or even because you take your right to vote seriously, but because you had to — at least, if you wanted to understand what you and your family might have to live through for the next four years.

I know, I know. According to Donald Trump, this kind of thinking is exactly the problem. “The central issue is not the needs of the 11 million illegal immigrants,” Trump said tonight. “It doesn’t matter from that standpoint.”

But let’s be clear about this. If you are an American citizen who does not know an unauthorized immigrant, you were watching tonight as politics — as the culmination of the reality show arc involving Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico. Even if you consider immigration an important issue facing America, it’s still a political one.

The people Trump welcomed onstage tonight, who have lost children to murder by unauthorized immigrants, have skin in the game. But there aren’t many of them.

There are, on the other hand, 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US — and even more people who are children, or siblings, or spouses, or neighbors of those immigrants — for whom Trump’s speech tonight might have been a preview of the next four years of their lives.

Imagine you are one of those people.

jeanette vizguerra

Your first reaction might have been relief: Donald Trump threw in a line saying there are “many illegal immigrants in our country, who are good people.”

But the speech quickly turns to a darker landscape.

Trump is saying that your and your family’s well-being comes at the expense of the well-being of Americans — that the two are a zero-sum battle. He’s calling people like you “thugs.” He’s promising — threatening — that police know exactly who you are, where you live. He’s promising — threatening — that they’re just waiting for a green light so they can bust through your door, cuff you, and turn you over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.

You’ve only begun to accept, possibly, the fact that you probably won’t be deported under President Obama. You’ve begun to recognize a glimmer of hope.

Donald Trump promises that under his administration, you would be at risk of deportation every day of your life.

He says it’s the point of having a country.

You listen to Donald Trump and feel disgusted for ever having had hope at all.

Living under threat of deportation is an incredibly traumatic thing

Some of Trump’s proposals in Phoenix were more realistic than others. It is vanishingly unlikely, for example, that Trump would be able to deport 2 million immigrants on “day one” of his administration.

But the heart of his speech, both as a matter of policy and rhetoric, was this:

To most Americans, that is simply a statement of legal interpretation. To unauthorized immigrants, it’s a threat. And it’s one they’ve had to live under for years.

For an unauthorized immigrant in the US, the threat of deportation is constantly present. It is not only impossible to ignore it, to go about one’s life as if one is not at risk of being scooped up and sent away, but irresponsible.

Just ask Oscar Hernandez, who was told at age 10 what to do if he saw a “big white bus” — and ended up having to hide in a supply closet when ICE agents came to their door. Ask any of the generation of immigrants Hernandez’s age. Everyone has a story.

The traumas are subtle and run deep. US citizen kids whose relatives live under the threat of deportation suffer in school compared with their peers. Children whose parents get deported end up stressed and traumatized. An entire generation of teens has had to confront the “transition to illegality” — the realization that they can’t actually make something of their lives, because their lives as they know them could be taken away.

That risk is actually a pretty new one. It wasn’t until 10 or 15 years ago that the federal government really had the capability and the desire to deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants who’d been living in the US, working steady jobs, putting down roots.

Under George W. Bush, immigration enforcement got more powerful and more high-profile. Huge shows of force in cities like Postville, Iowa, swept up and deported hundreds of immigrants and terrorized entire communities. Trump is promising to bring this all back.

ICE raid fugitive operations
ICE agents prepare to enter a home during a “fugitive operations" raid. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty)
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Arguably, the thrust of President Obama’s immigration policy since 2011 or so has been to reduce the trauma that comes with the constant fear of deportation. But it has been extremely difficult for him to do — partly because it was hard, institutionally, to actually reduce the threat of deportation for immigrants who’ve been in the US for years, and partly because fear is too powerful a thing to be banished quickly. Trump would break the hard-fought, fragile victory of the Obama administration like a castaway cobweb, with a wave of his hand.

Fear is always lurking just below the surface. In January, the Obama administration sent millions of unauthorized immigrants into a total panic when it launched a series of raids to capture recent Central American immigrants who’d slipped out of the government’s reach. The raids were extremely targeted; they only ended up picking up a few hundred people (and many of those resisted deportation). But people all around America, including longtime residents, were absolutely panicked. After all, if ICE picked them up by mistake, what were they supposed to do?

It would be incredibly easy for a future president to make that fear a permanent fixture again, permanently hanging over immigrants’ heads. All it would take would be removing deferred action protections from those who have them — something aspiring President Trump promised again, tonight, to do — and to make it clear that, once again, “there’s a very good chance” any given unauthorized immigrant living in the US could be deported.

It would be hard to design a policy platform that would make deportation a more serious or traumatic threat

Donald Trump knows that Border Patrol agents and ICE field agents are personally interested in deporting as many unauthorized immigrants as possible, and feel deeply aggrieved that the Obama administration has prevented them from using the fear of deportation as a weapon against all unauthorized immigrants. He talks to them frequently; they’re allied with his campaign.

Under his immigration platform, as outlined in Wednesday’s speech, those agents would be the ones setting the immigration agenda for government.

There would be three times as many ICE “deportation agents” as there are now — with the tripling of the force accomplished by hiring exactly the people who wanted to sign up to deport unauthorized immigrants as a way to make America great again. And instead of spending months in detention or waiting to have their cases heard in immigration court, unauthorized immigrants would either be pressured to waive their rights to contest their deportation or be deprived of those rights entirely.

This isn’t to mention the subtler parts of Trump’s plan — the things that would have been labeled “self-deportation” if Trump weren’t promising so many deportations of the traditional sort. Eight million unauthorized immigrants would be dumped out of jobs once their employers had to check the legal status of all their employees. Their children would lose the few public benefits and tax credits they currently get.

But the pain of self-deportation is different from the trauma of fearing deportation by force. The misery of living in the US without documents, which a “self-deportation” policy aims to turn up to an unbearable level, is a grinding, constant misery, like the misery of poverty.

The trauma of fearing deportation is a sword of Damocles that could drop at any time. Even when it does not come for sure, it is impossible to banish from the periphery of thought. It is the sort of fear that changes behaviors, instills caution, makes people live in the shadows. It is a chilling effect.

immigrant deported goodbye to child

It is supposed to be a chilling effect. To people who think the most important thing in immigration policy is to reduce the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country, the fact that deportation is a constant threat is what makes it so powerful.

It’s why so many were so offended by Obama’s deferred action programs of 2012 and especially 2014. It’s not that they felt it was more important to deport mothers of US citizen children than to deport criminals, or that they didn’t understand that the government couldn’t literally deport everyone at once. It’s that they felt the fear of deportation was an important component of maintaining the rule of law.

Donald Trump’s platform would make deportation as scary as possible. It would bring back the high-profile, flashy, traumatizing workplace raids of the Bush administration. It would take the harshest parts of the Obama administration’s immigration policy — a focus on deporting as many as people as possible, as quickly as possible — and turbocharge them. It would ensure that as many unauthorized immigrants as possible are deported, or know someone who has been deported, or can all too easily imagine they might be next.

It would be bitterly funny, in an ironic sort of way, if it weren’t so sobering. Donald Trump told his supporters tonight that the point of immigration policy is the well-being of Americans, not the fate of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

But the policy he outlined wouldn’t change most Americans’ lives. Its greatest impact would be to create a cloud over their heads, larger even than the ones they’ve seen for the past decade, of constant, crippling fear.

child hugging detainee father

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.