Since November, and the election of Donald Trump, here’s the scenario that’s kept me up at night: that the Trump administration, and the Trump era in American life, would be more or less (or at least compared to expectations) okay for me and people like me.
That it would be okay, more or less, for white people.
That it would be as powerful a destructive force as many Americans feared — but only for some of the Americans who feared it. That it would seem from the well-lit corridors of networked American life like the Trump administration was an exhausting but spluttering reality show, all bark and no bite, while vulnerable nonwhite Americans were being chased, unseen, through the side streets.
The worst-case scenarios haven’t come true. Obamacare repeal is more or less dead and NATO is alive. The president’s legislative agenda can be charitably described as “stalled,” though that assumes it was ever moving to begin with. The transparent disarray of the White House and certain parts of the administration gives the unmistakable impression that this is a president who simply isn’t getting anything done.
But I’m not sleeping any better. I’m beginning to suspect I was right all along, and I couldn’t be less pleased about it.
We need to stop thinking about a president’s legislative agenda as the sum total of his domestic policy, stop measuring policy changes in terms of sweeping proclamations, and start thinking about the decisions being made on the ground: what is being done more than it was six months ago, and what less. Start thinking about policies that only target particular groups — particularly nonwhite ones.
If you think of things that way, a different picture of the Trump administration emerges. The administration has already left a huge mark on the lives of nonwhites in America — particularly immigrants, and particularly unauthorized immigrants. It’s quietly, without pronouncements or hiring surges, ratcheted up the risk that immigrants will be apprehended and deported.
The administration may not have accomplished literally everything it wanted (or everything its opponents feared) on this front, but it’s certainly made the most progress here than it has in other policy areas.
The administration appears to have been swayed toward establishment Republican orthodoxy in some cases, but its immigration-enforcement agenda can’t simply be described as “George W. Bush redux” or “Marco Rubio with more tweeting.” It’s doing something we’ve never seen before.
By creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities, the Trump administration has embraced the extreme discretion it has in enforcing these laws. It still has the potential to wreak lasting damage on nonwhite American communities — to unsew them from public life. The worst of it is, the more the Trump administration is written off, in public, as a failure, the more room it will have to quietly succeed at this darker goal.
The Trump administration has successfully increased the risk of deportation for millions of immigrants
The Trump administration rode into office on the issue of immigration. Its rhetoric was often hyperbolic, and its early campaign proposals were unrealistic, but at its core was a promise that could be easily kept: There was no good reason, in the Trump administration’s worldview, for someone who was in the US without authorization to feel safe from deportation.
Under President Trump, the risk of deportation isn’t evenly distributed. Some immigrants are more likely to get apprehended and deported than others. But across the board, the risk of deportation is elevated: Few if any unauthorized immigrants (or even, to a certain extent, legal-immigrant noncitizens) are affirmatively 100 percent safe.
No one has ever announced this. Instead, immigrant communities, the institutions that support them, and the media that reports on them have all found ourselves playing detective: finding out about one high-profile case at a time, drawing our own conclusions, and trying to modify behavior accordingly.
When Irvin Gonzalez was arrested in an El Paso courthouse, where she’d gone to pick up a restraining order for a domestic abuser, police departments around the US started noticing that Hispanic women had stopped coming in as often to report domestic violence.
When Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was arrested during an annual check-in with immigration agents, immigrants facing similar appointments started trying to bring crowds of supporters along with them when they walked into ICE offices — or simply missed their appointments and sought sanctuary elsewhere, like Jeanette Vizguerra, who hasn’t set foot outside a Unitarian church in Denver since February.
When Daniel Ramirez was arrested during a home raid in Seattle — despite being protected from deportation under President Barack Obama — hundreds of thousands of other “DREAMers” started looking over their shoulders.
For the most part, the immigrants getting apprehended under the Trump administration are people who were already on the radar of immigration agents. Some of them, like Gonzalez, have past criminal convictions (however long ago or minor the crime); many of them, in what appears to be the biggest immediate shift from Obama-era policies, are people (like Vizguerra and Garcia) who were ordered deported from the US at some point in the past.
From ICE’s perspective, one benefit of going after immigrants with prior deportation orders is that they don’t have to go through the years-long immigration-court backlog before they can be deported. More fundamentally, though, it’s easier for ICE to find someone who they already have records of than someone they don’t.
By the same token, it’s easy to detain and deport immigrants when they show up for check-ins at ICE offices, or when ICE, in the middle of an enforcement sweep, enters a house to find a particular immigrant and finds other immigrants (like Ramirez) there too.
These trends don’t appear to be a matter of policy — if you define “policy” as an edict from above, an executive order, even a press release. The point of the Trump administration’s law enforcement policy, on immigration as on criminal justice, is that rank-and-file officers ought to be trusted to know how best to go about their jobs. So what we’ve seen, emerging in outline from the cases and statistics that have trickled out (often after the fact) from the Trump administration’s enforcement efforts, can best be described as patterns: the same decisions getting made over and over again.
That means that unauthorized immigrants who aren’t as likely to come into contact with ICE agents, and haven’t yet, are probably less likely to get arrested and set for deportation. But it means it’s impossible to call them “safe.” Just because an ICE agent has made one decision so far doesn’t stop him from making the opposite decision next time.
Even the immigrants who are supposed to be protected from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program aren’t unequivocally safe. The Trump administration, despite early interest in ending the DACA program entirely, is letting it continue (at least for now). But it’s shown some interest in stripping protections from individual beneficiaries by arguing they’ve violated the terms of the program, or deporting people who qualified for protection but had allowed it to lapse.
The purpose of the DACA program, in large part, was to allow young adults with roots in the US to be relieved of the psychological burden that comes from fearing deportation on a regular basis. That burden may not sit as heavily on DACA recipients right now as it does on their wholly unprotected parents, siblings, and neighbors, but it’s undeniably returned.
Things that make it harder for Trump to govern in other areas made it easier for him to have an immediate impact on immigration
In other realms of the Trump administration, this sort of uncertainty is a sign of ineffectiveness at best — or a total absence of leadership at worst. But when it comes to law enforcement policy — and especially immigration enforcement, which represents the plurality of federal law enforcement in the 21st century — the Trump administration’s bugs become features.
Trump’s legislative agenda is an utter disaster. He hasn’t been able to get anything he wants through a Congress that his party bicamerally controls. But luckily for him, the president has a tremendous amount of leeway on immigration enforcement; he didn’t need Congress to repeal Obama-administration memos on deportation priorities the way he needed them to repeal Obamacare.
The executive branch is still radically understaffed at the top levels. Hundreds of key positions are still unfilled. But the Trump administration didn’t need to fully staff up the senior bureaucracy at the Department of Homeland Security to tell field agents to make their own decisions — to the contrary, it’s easier to devolve power to the rank-and-file without several levels of intermediary appointees in the way.
The result is that stories about immigration under Trump simply happen differently from stories on other topics. Instead of reporters chasing after stray comments from administration officials that hint at sweeping policy changes, or parsing the meaning of bold executive orders whose text is released at 7 pm or later Eastern time, the story of the administration’s immigration policy is being written around the country. By the time Sean Spicer or Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is asked to comment, it’s because advocacy groups, city officials, and keyed-in local reporters — not to mention immigrants themselves — have pulled together the information themselves.
Conveniently, this allows administration officials to argue that the stories coming out are biased and untrustworthy because they’re not coming from the administration. And it allows them to deny, or distance themselves from, any evidence that their immigration policy is having broader impacts on immigrants’ lives. When asked about immigrants’ fear of going out in public after immigration raids, officials blame “activists” for spreading inaccurate rumors about things ICE Is doing.
When asked about the fact that Latina women are suddenly much less likely to report domestic violence or sexual assault in several US cities than they were before Trump came into office, they deny that there’s enough evidence that Trump’s deportation policies are the reason — or simply declare that it is the “duty” of an unauthorized immigrant to report domestic violence, even while refusing to guarantee she will not be deported for doing so.
These things are signs of a broader unsewing of immigrants from public life. So are reports of depressed school attendance after raids, or of immigrants unwilling to seek out social services from local organizations, or the Cinco de Mayo celebration in Philadelphia canceled over fears of ICE infiltration.
Whether this is an intended or an unintended consequence of the administration’s policies (and which one it is probably depends on who in the administration you ask) is somewhat beside the point. The point is that these were, at this point, foreseeable consequences. Local police chiefs have been warning about the chilling effects of immigration enforcement on crime reporting for a decade. The fact that immigrants who might not be the first targets of ICE agents nonetheless worry that they’ll be detained was exactly what led the Obama administration to set increasingly strict priorities to reassure them they probably wouldn’t be.
For most people in America, the effects of the Trump administration have been mostly hypothetical — anxiety over the future of their health care or their planet. For immigrants, the uncertainty is taking place in the present tense. It has been since the earliest days of Trump’s tenure. And there’s nothing of disappointment, or of relief.
Even organized resistance can’t prevent the damage
The self-styled “resistance” to President Trump — the progressive movement in the streets, and (sometimes) Democrats in Congress — hasn’t ignored immigration policy under Trump. To the contrary, it’s been often more aware when people without criminal records are deported now than it was during the Obama administration.
When the Trump administration requested billions more in immigration enforcement funding to supplement the Department of Homeland Security’s budget through September, congressional Democrats were no more willing to fund a hiring surge of ICE agents (which progressives tend to refer to as a “deportation force”) than they were to fund a wall on the US/Mexico border. The ultimate funding deal, announced Monday, doesn’t include any new money for hiring ICE agents; doesn’t authorize the Trump administration to strip grant money from “sanctuary cities” (something a federal judge just prohibited it from doing without congressional approval); and even slightly loosens requirements for immigrant detention capacity.
But even the strongest resistance effort from Democrats and progressives can only limit the damage. It can’t really keep immigrants safe.
When Democrats mobilized to stop Obamacare repeal (with help from Republican ambivalence and dysfunction), they actually stopped it. When they mobilized to stop a “deportation force,” they didn’t actually stop ICE. The Trump administration will continue to apprehend and deport immigrants — and it will continue to build relationships with local law enforcement agencies that encourage local police to scoop up unauthorized immigrants and turn them over for deportation.
Local officials in self-proclaimed sanctuary cities can refuse to hold over immigrants for ICE agents to pick up in jail, without fear of federal defunding (for now). But they can’t stop ICE agents from coming into their cities and finding and deporting those immigrants once they’ve been released — or even from deliberately targeting “sanctuary cities” in immigration raids to send a message, as some officials say they’re doing now.
Resistance to Trump isn’t useless. It can reduce the risk that particular immigrants are deported. But those immigrants have no reason to believe, rationally, that their risk of deportation is zero. So it’s hard to make the argument to any unauthorized immigrant living under Trump that her fear is irrational and undeserved.
The resistance’s obligation is not to protect her. It is to make sure she is seen — that the unfolding story of the Trump era doesn’t reduce the administration to a punchline, or a cipher, or like more of the same.