For Trump, Cruelty Is the Point
The White House’s immigration policies are designed to maximize suffering.
By Julianne Hing
In November 2017, a 39-year-old woman arrived in the United States after fleeing with her daughter from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Ms. L.” (as she would later become known in court documents) made it all the way to the US-Mexico border and there, as is her lawful right, pleaded for asylum. She cleared a so-called “credible fear” interview establishing that she was legitimately afraid of persecution if returned to her home country. But her troubles were far from over.
A few days after their arrival in the United States, Ms. L.’s then-6-year-old daughter was taken from her by immigration officials. Her daughter was soon transferred to a Chicago facility, while Ms. L. remained locked up in San Diego at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. The two have been separated for four months and have spoken only a handful of times by phone. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government over these practices in late February. “When the officers separated them, Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the ACLU complaint reads.
The government’s separation of parents from their children, the ACLU argued, violated asylum laws as well as the due-process rights of Ms. L. and her daughter. In early March, after a public outcry, Ms. L. was abruptly released, but her daughter remains in custody. It’s still unclear when or even if they’ll be reunited.
Ms. L.’s story is not unique. For more than a year, the Trump administration has discussed adopting, as official policy, the practice of separating parents from their children. “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico,” said John Kelly, then head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaking on CNN in March 2017.
There was perhaps even a hint of compassion in Kelly’s remarks. But snatching a child away from her mother’s arms in order to discourage others from attempting the same journey is undeniably cruel. And while this practice affects a small minority of the people subject to immigration enforcement—these are the freshest of newcomers and not yet among the estimated 11 million undocumented people already in the country—it is deeply representative of how the Trump administration treats immigrants and other marginalized populations.
Yes, there is Trump’s rhetoric: We all remember the “(blank) countries” remark. He also recited a hateful anti-immigrant fable at the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference involving a menacing snake that kills a kindhearted woman. And he has repeatedly delivered speeches portraying immigrants as bloodthirsty gang members. Very often, when he does speak about immigrants, he speaks only about the MS-13 gang. “[Gang members] have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” Trump said last summer. “They’re animals.” His racist animus toward immigrants is one of the few subjects on which he can string together coherent sentences.
“Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother.” —from the ACLU’s lawsuit against ICE
But his administration’s actions are even worse. Without needing to change any laws, the White House has used the threat of gang violence and the need to protect national security as pretexts for draconian immigration policies. Yet the real aim has always been something else: to inflict maximum suffering as a means of pushing out unwanted newcomers as well as those whose extended presence in the country may threaten white supremacy.
The administration has singled out California, home to the biggest immigrant population in the country, for daring to challenge this agenda. In early March, the Justice Department sued the state over three laws it passed last year. The first law limits the immigration-enforcement work that police departments and public agencies in the state can do for the federal government. The second bars employers from consenting to a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their businesses without a warrant and requires them to give employees a heads-up when the federal government performs an immigration audit on them. And the third gives the state attorney general the right to inspect any detention facility where immigrants are held while they await a court date or deportation. By passing these laws, the Justice Department argued, California had overstepped its bounds, since only the federal government has the right to regulate immigration enforcement. States that show compassion for immigrants will not be tolerated.
In addition to ICE agents staking out courthouses, school drop-off corners, and even hospitals—violating the agency’s own guidelines about not making arrests in “sensitive locations”—agents have also arrested or deported at least four outspoken immigrant-rights leaders in what activists call a calculated stroke of political retaliation. Recently, ICE arrested another, activist Alejandra Pablos, at a regular Tucson, Arizona, check-in on March 7.
Because of this fear of ICE, some immigrants have sought sanctuary in houses of worship. There are 36 people currently housed in sanctuary, according to a report released in January. But sanctuary is not a reprieve from the pressures of the Trump administration. Indeed, it’s a kind of imprisonment, a seclusion from the outside world in which one can lose contact with family and friends.
In June of last year, Trump proposed another rule change. “We also want to preserve our safety net for struggling Americans who truly need help,” he said in a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But others don’t treat us fairly. That’s why I believe the time has come for new immigration rules, which say that those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years.”
At the time, Trump’s statement was a head-scratcher. Undocumented immigrants are already barred from access to public assistance, food stamps, student loans, and Social Security. With some minor exceptions, even legal permanent residents must have their green cards for at least five years before they are eligible, and then only on a state-by-state basis for some public benefits. No matter: The trial balloon had been floated. By February of this year, Reuters reported on a rule being drafted that would allow immigration officials to consider whether a person had used public benefits—even if it was entirely legal, such as participating in Head Start for their US-born children—before deciding whether to grant a green card.
The message is clear, and it’s being received: Immigrant families will have terrible choices imposed on them.
By March, The New York Times reported, immigrant families had already started to drop out of food stamps, food banks, and nutritional programs for pregnant women and their young children. “The rumor mill is rampant, and the fear is palpable,” said Lisa David, president and chief executive of Public Health Solutions, a food-stamp provider in New York City. “The stakes for what could happen in the future are incredibly high, and people just aren’t willing to take that risk.”
These programs are crucial lifelines, but this is how the Trump administration operates. The message is clear, and it’s being received: Immigrant families will have terrible choices imposed on them.
There’s a name for this approach: attrition through enforcement, or the enactment of policies that make life in the United States so difficult for immigrants that they choose to leave on their own. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called it “self-deportation,” which helped cost him the election. Trump said so himself. “He had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal,” Trump said in 2012. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote.” Today, as president, Trump has made this same “crazy policy” the cornerstone of his immigration agenda.
“People aren’t going to stop coming unless there are consequences to illegal entry,” a Homeland Security official told The Washington Post, explaining the department’s rationale for separating parents and children at the border. But eight human-rights advocates and legal-service providers, in a complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security in December, pointed out that such policies have no bearing on migration flows. They cited a study that examined the migration rates of children from Central America from 2011 to 2016. According to the complaint, the study found that “no U.S. policy—whether it be deterrence or not—has a statistical impact in the migration of a child. Instead, the study found that the single biggest indicator of a child’s migration was the number of homicides” in their home country: The more homicides that occurred, the more likely a child was to flee. (And bear in mind that homicides in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are a useful proxy for other kinds of violent crime that often go unrecorded, such as kidnappings and extortion.) The study could even quantify it: For every 10 homicides, six additional children would migrate.
Under Trump, the country has embarked on an enforcement policy that willfully causes suffering and that doesn’t even factor into the decisions of desperate people trying to escape dangerous situations. Moreover, its stated reasons—to protect national security and the rule of law—are a ruse. Like so much else with this administration, the US immigration agenda is now being driven by a disdain for the most vulnerable communities among us.
Julianne Hing is a contributing writer at The Nation, where she covers immigration and the politics of the changing demography of the United States.
It’s Time to Abolish ICE
A mass-deportation strike force is incompatible with democracy and human rights.
By Sean McElwee
Dan Canon is running for Congress in Indiana’s ninth district this year. A career civil-rights lawyer, Canon filed one of the cases against gay-marriage bans that eventually became the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges, and he proudly wore a Notorious RBG shirt under his suit to the Supreme Court. He is currently representing individuals suing Donald Trump for inciting violence at his rallies.
Canon has also defended clients swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and fought a Kafkaesque deportation system that, at one point, wouldn’t even disclose the location of his client. Now Canon believes ICE should be abolished entirely.
“I don’t think a lot of people have any kind of direct experience with ICE, so they don’t really know what they do or what they’re about. If they did, they’d be appalled,” Canon told me. “ICE as it presently exists is an agency devoted almost solely to cruelly and wantonly breaking up families. The agency talks about, and treats, human beings like they’re animals. They scoop up people in their apartments or their workplaces and take them miles away from their spouses and children.”
The idea of defunding ICE has gained traction among immigrant-rights groups horrified by the speed at which, under President Donald Trump, the agency has ramped up an already brutal deportation process. Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network, said, “Responsible policymakers need to be honest about the fact that the core of the agency is broken.” Her group led the charge to defund ICE with its #DefundHate campaign last year.
Groups like Indivisible Project and the Center for Popular Democracy have also called for defunding ICE. Brand New Congress, a progressive PAC, has the proposal in its immigration platform.
“ICE is terrorizing American communities right now,” said Angel Padilla, policy director of the Indivisible Project. “They’re going into schools, entering hospitals, conducting massive raids, and separating children from parents every day. We are funding those activities, and we need to use all the leverage we have to stop it.”
Though ICE abolition is spreading on the left, it quickly meets extreme skepticism elsewhere. In part, this is because the mainstream political discourse has a huge blind spot for the agency’s increasingly brutal policies. While elites have generally become concerned with rising authoritarianism, they have mainly ignored the purges ICE is conducting in immigrant communities. For example, in their recent book, How Democracies Die, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky do not mention ICE at all. Centrist pundits like Jonathan Chait have dedicated thousands of words to the threat of “PC culture” on college campuses, but haven’t found time to question whether an opaque and racist deportation force might pose a larger threat to democracy than campus editorial pages.
Others tend to dismiss ICE abolition as more of a troll than a serious policy demand. Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, argued that progressives have not paired the proposal with “a plan to do the function without the hated agency.”
But the goal of abolishing the agency is to abolish the function. ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.
ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.
That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.
IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”
Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.
The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer and the writers at the white-supremacist journal VDare. ICE’s modus operandi under Trump bears a striking resemblance to the strategy proposed by white supremacist Jared Taylor in 2015:
The key, however, would be a few well publicized raids on non-criminal illegals. Television images of Mexican families dropped over the border with no more than they could carry would be very powerful. The vast majority of illegals would quickly decide to get their affairs in order and choose their own day of departure rather than wait for ICE to choose it for them. The main thing would be to convince illegals that ICE was serious about kicking them out. Ironically, the more ICE was prepared to do, the less it would have to do.
This is a near-perfect summary of ICE under acting director Thomas Homan, who has repeatedly made clear that all undocumented residents should be afraid of his agents. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” he boasted in his congressional testimony last year.
Homan does not apply any light touch when expressing his authoritarian tendencies. He has threatened to jail and prosecute local officials in so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not fully comply with ICE mandates. The agency has also clearly been targeting political opponents for deportations and has worked to deport individuals for speaking to media about ICE.
Homan’s authoritarian saber rattling has essentially been ignored in the mainstream political dialogue, but the candidates and activists I spoke with hear it loud and clear. So do the communities they represent.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is challenging Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which covers part of the Bronx and Queens, told me she believes that “After a long and protracted history of sexual assault and uninvestigated deaths in ICE’s detention facilities, as well as the corrosive impact ICE has had on our schools, courts, and communities, it’s time to reset course.”
New York’s 14th district is among the most diverse and immigrant-heavy in the country. Ocasio-Cortez not only supports defunding ICE, but also wants a full congressional inquiry into ICE enforcement and detention practices. She further argues for a “a truth and reconciliation process for victims of any potential sexual assault, neglect, and misconduct discovered as a result.”
Kaniela Ing, a member of the Hawaii State Legislature currently running for the House in the state’s first district, has also endorsed defunding ICE, tweeting this week that “When they say defund Planned Parenthood (and destroy millions of lives), we say defund ICE (and save millions of lives).”
Suraj Patel, a child of immigrants, is running a well-funded insurgent campaign against Democratic incumbent Representative Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th Congressional District. He would vote to defund ICE if he makes it to Congress. “ICE has crossed a red line under this president by harassing, pursuing, and terrorizing immigrants and activists all over this country with impunity. These mass deportations are forcing immigrants to live in fear, while making the rest of us less safe,” he said. “Defunding ICE and returning it to be a passport-patrol and customs-enforcement agency rather than an above-the-law deportation squad is a critical step to protecting all Americans and our civil liberties.”
Granted, this position might not fly everywhere in the country. But Hillary Clinton won the 12th district with 83 percent of the vote, and candidates like Patel are trying to shift the Overton window. “We miss an incredible opportunity when we allow districts like ours to be safe havens for the status quo,” Patel said.
There is increasing support for limiting or even ending cooperation with ICE at the state level, too. Abdul El-Sayed, a gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, told me that he “will not waste a dime of state taxpayer money to enforce laws that would tear apart families—and tear apart our economy.”
Jessica Ramos, who is running for a New York State Senate seat in Queens, has also endorsed defunding ICE. “Instead of making our communities safer, ICE has taught immigrants to fear and distrust law enforcement,” she said. “It’s absolutely time to defund the agency and start working on real, common-sense immigration reform.”
Ramos’s opponent in the primary, Jose Peralta, joined the Independent Democratic Caucus in the statehouse last year, which is a group of politicians who were elected as Democrats formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. He claimed this would position him to bring tuition benefits and protections to undocumented immigrants, but those benefits have not materialized, though he has gotten a nice pay raise thanks to the GOP.
The call to abolish ICE is, above all, a demand for the Democratic Party to begin seriously resisting an unbridled white-supremacist surveillance state that it had a hand in creating. Though the party has moved left on core issues from reproductive rights to single-payer health care, it’s time for progressives to put forward a demand that deportation be taken not as the norm but rather as a disturbing indicator of authoritarianism.
White supremacy can no longer be the center of the immigration debate. Democrats have voted to fully fund ICE with limited fanfare, because in the American immigration discussion, the right-wing position is the center and the left has no voice. There has been disturbing word fatigue around “mass deportation,” and the threat of deportation is so often taken lightly that many have lost the ability to conceptualize what it means. Next to death, being stripped from your home, family, and community is the worst fate that can be inflicted on a human, as many societies practicing banishment have recognized. It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York City.