Here today, gone tomorrow?

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Immigrants Mobilize for War With Trump

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Less than four years ago, more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to create a path to citizenship for long-resident undocumented immigrants. Last week, President Donald Trump signed an order to mobilize the mass deportation of those same people.

No issue has more accurately reflected the nation's political whiplash than immigration. The 2013 bill was a reflection of humane technocracy and political compromise. It created a deliberate path to citizenship of 13 years. Trump's order is saturated in racial anxiety and cruelty for its own sake. It went into effect immediately.

The furor has already been eclipsed by outrage and chaos stemming from Trump's constitutionally suspect order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries. Both orders are nakedly political. But the order to remove undocumented immigrants appears well designed for its ultimate purpose: to destroy the immigrant-rights movement and terrorize people into abandoning first their hope, then their homes.

The operative theory is that if fear is pervasive, and enforcement aggressive, millions of immigrants will conclude that it's preferable to leave under their own autonomy than await the loss of assets, dignity and freedom that accompanies deportation.

Three elements of the order stand out.

First, it explicitly does not "exempt classes or categories of removable aliens." Even immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- the Dreamers -- are now targeted. (Trump is poised to act on the Dreamers in a separate order, suggesting he might create some exceptions. But the language here is uncompromising.)

There is no moral, legal or economic justification for removing people who are culturally American, who have no other home in most cases, who have been educated at American expense and who crossed the border as dependent children. But sanctuary locales that try to protect them will have their federal funding attacked.

Second, the order commits (without funding, which must come from Congress) to hiring 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, asylum officers and immigration judges. Thousands of new agents will bolster an ICE deportation force whose members often felt constrained by previous rules. The order endows even low-level agents with all but absolute power to put an immigrant on the deportation track.

Third, advancing a pervasive Trump tactic, the order envelops undocumented immigrants in an aura of criminality. It promises a weekly federal report on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The propaganda -- Trump has no similar plans to trumpet hate crimes committed against immigrants by his supporters -- will help brand immigrants as criminals, and encourage fear and hatred of them.

It's far from clear how successful immigrant advocates will be in countering this ferocious and comprehensive assault. "We’re in the fight of our lives," e-mailed Frank Sharry of America's Voice. 

Advocates for undocumented immigrants are hoping that public opinion, which polls consistently suggest is opposed to mass deportation, will provide a defense against Trump's blunt force. In a large-scale survey of 120,000 Americans taken over three years by the Public Religion Research Institute, a solid majority supported a path to citizenship for longtime resident undocumented immigrants. "Through the ups and downs of immigration-reform legislation and even under the darker shadows of the 2016 election season," wrote PRRI's Robert Jones in the Atlantic, "American opinions about concrete policy solutions have remained remarkably stable."

Referring to polls showing opposition to mass deportation, Tom Jawetz, an immigration expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote, via e-mail:

The American public doesn't think ripping people away from their families, churches, schools, and jobs is the right way to address our country's immigration challenges. We may put that stated opposition to the test and if the millions of people who participated in the Women's marches is any indication, I think we will back up those polls.

Yet 46 percent of Americans voted for Trump knowing he had run the crudest anti-immigrant campaign in modern U.S. history. His occasional ambiguity on policy never obscured his basic hostility toward immigrants. And Trump's agitated base clearly wants vengeance delivered to a broad number of opponents, with the most vulnerable among the most desired targets.

"So what do we do in response?" asked Sharry. "First, we do have some assets: a feisty movement, public opinion, blue states, big cities, support from people of conscience, nervous Republicans, the courts and the filibuster. Our movement will be in the streets and will get between Trump’s deportation force and immigrant families." 

One question is how aggressive American business will be in joining the opposition. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center estimated that one-fourth of the U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. So is 17 percent of the construction industry. When Alabama passed a harsh law in 2011, intended to chase undocumented immigrants out of state, crops rotted in fields, and construction trades experienced a shortage of skilled workers. Yet only about 3.5 percent of Alabama's population is foreign-born. The effect of mass deportation on other states -- especially those dense with farms and food processing -- would be far more severe.

Corporations appear frightened of Trump's Twitter feed. (I asked the American Farm Bureau Federation for comment on the order, but haven't received one yet.) For the farm lobby and other business interests to join the fight against Trump publicly, they may first need to see mass protests and political support. 

To generate that, Sharry and his allies will have to focus attention on the most sympathetic targets of deportation, like Dreamers engaged in community service or possessed of rare talent. But others will have to buttress their own cases. Undocumented immigrants in families with mixed citizenship -- with American children or an American spouse -- are another story worth emphasizing. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 4 million American citizen children have undocumented parents.

Last, there are the undocumented immigrants who are entrepreneurs. A 2013 New York Times story cited the example of a businessman who had lived in the U.S. for two decades, owned two restaurants, and had an American wife. (Marriage is not an automatic route to a green card.) Few Americans outside Trump's base would consider his deportation a social good. 

Exposing such narratives, however, will also expose those immigrants to immediate removal. It is a high-risk strategy. But advocates have little choice.

The goal is to exact "a cumulative toll" on the Trump administration, Sharry said. His hopeful scenario: "Trump's numbers go even lower, sane Republicans oppose him more often, Democrats in Congress become more aggressive, and public disgust at his war on immigrants and refugees becomes more intense." 

Like virtually all Trump scenarios, the battle is zero sum. The new president lacks the capacity or character to work for mutual success. The only way for 11 million people to win is for one person to lose.

Gerges: Trump Ban 'Massive Propaganda Boost' for ISIS

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net