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Trump blindsides ICE with mass deportation announcement on eve of reelection rally

It’s all about politics.

President Donald Trump Delivers Remarks In The Rose Garden On Expanding Health Coverage Options For Small Businesses
Trump at the White House last Friday.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The night before a rally in Orlando at which he plans to launch his reelection campaign, President Donald Trump sought to signal strength by announcing a mass deportation campaign targeting millions of people.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted on Monday evening. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

Trump’s announcement apparently caught Immigration and Customs Enforcement by surprise, and it’s unlikely the agency has the resources to carry out an operation of the scale he apparently has in mind.

But that’s likely not the point.

The threat of impending deportation will terrorize the roughly 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the country as well as the communities they live in. It also serves as the latest illustration that Trump continues to view hardline immigration policy — backed up with threats of force, even if he can’t follow through — as a political winner on the eve of a campaign cycle in which he faces an uphill path to getting reelected.

Trump’s deportation announcement caught those who would actually do the deporting off guard

Trump’s announcement in and of itself isn’t a surprise, as he’s been flirting with the idea of pursuing mass deportations for some time. But in the past, he’s reportedly been thwarted by administration officials who thought it went too far.

Trump’s announcement comes just a month after the Washington Post reported that then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — whom my colleague Dara Lind described as “the most aggressive DHS secretary in history” — and then-acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello left the administration in part because they objected to “a secret White House plan to arrest thousands of parents and children in a blitz operation against migrants in 10 major US cities,” including blue-state cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

But as the Post reported at the time:

According to seven current and former Department of Homeland Security officials, the administration wanted to target the crush of families that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border after the president’s failed “zero tolerance” prosecution push in early 2018. The ultimate purpose, the officials said, was a show of force to send the message that the United States was going to get tough by swiftly moving to detain and deport recent immigrants — including families with children.

The sprawling operation included an effort to fast-track immigration court cases, allowing the government to obtain deportation orders against those who did not show for their hearings — officials said 90 percent of those targeted were found deportable in their absence. The subsequent arrests would have required coordinated raids against parents with children in their homes and neighborhoods.

The Post reported that the plan Nielsen and Vitiello objected to would’ve resulted in the arrest of as many as 10,000 migrants. What Trump announced on Monday obviously goes far beyond that, and it’s unlikely that ICE has the resources to pull it off — HuffPost’s Roque Planas reports that the highest number of deportations from ICE in recent history was 238,000 in 2009, or about a quarter of the number Trump referred to on Monday.

Trump apparently didn’t even bother looping in ICE ahead of his vague announcement. CNN’s Nick Valencia reports that ICE is directing all media inquiries back to the White House.

And although there is a plan for increased enforcement in the works (the new acting ICE director, Mark Morgan, told reporters earlier this month that “we will be going after individuals who have gone through due process and who have received final orders of deportation”), it doesn’t seem like ICE was anywhere near ready to carry out coordinated raids in densely populated cities. Following Trump’s tweet, the Washington Post reported that “US officials with knowledge of the preparations have said in recent days that the operation was not imminent, and ICE officials said late Monday night that they were not aware that the president planned to divulge their enforcement plans on Twitter.”

ICE has good reason to want to maintain secrecy about enforcement plans. A former senior ICE official told BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz that Trump’s announcement is “putting officer safety at risk. This is not presidential. This is not leadership. But should we at all be surprised anymore?”

For Trump, however, whatever concerns ICE has about his announcement apparently take a back seat to his desire to make a show of strength around one of his signature issues ahead of a big speech meant to officially launch his reelection campaign on Tuesday night.

Trump thinks draconian immigration fearmongering is good politics

Trump began his presidential bid nearly four years ago by smearing Mexicans as rapists and criminals. He then campaigned on a “deportation force” and border wall that Mexico was going to pay for. Last year, he made fearmongering about a purported “invasion” of migrants across the southern border a centerpiece of his closing campaign message ahead of the midterms — an election that cost his party 40 seats in the House and control of that chamber.

In recent months, Trump declared a national emergency in order to redirect federal funds for a border wall without Congress signing off on it, and delivered a Rose Garden speech in which he proposed curtailing legal immigration to the country. And during his most recent political rally on May 20 in Pennsylvania, Trump ranted about how “our country is full” and “we don’t want people coming up here.”

“We want Mexico to stop. We want all of them to stop ... our country is packed to the gills,” he continued, as his fans chanted, “Build the wall!”

Trump seems convinced that draconian immigration policy is good politics. But evidence is mounting that he’s wrong. Beyond last November’s election results, a Fox News poll released this week indicates that Trump’s fixation on curtailing all forms of immigration isn’t resonating with voters. Half of American voters who responded to the poll said they think the Trump administration has gone too far with immigration enforcement — more than double the percentage who said they don’t think Trump has gone far enough (24 percent).

Trump will likely use his vow to deport millions of people as an applause line and a cudgel to attack Democratic presidential candidates during his rally on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether his announcement was meant as anything beyond an empty show of strength. But either way, the mere fact that Trump views using the power of the state against immigrants and their communities as a winning reelection strategy is a dark omen 15 months ahead of the next presidential election.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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