The Trump administration is pursuing a fascist policy against undocumented immigrants. Yet undocumented immigrants were deported at significantly higher rates during the Obama administration.
Those two statements encapsulate the confusion enveloping immigration policy under President Trump. Day after day, stories pile up of ICE raids and abuse of immigrants in detention, with the most recent and most outrageous being accounts of parents and children being forcibly separated by immigration authorities at the border.
"If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned earlier this month. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
But again: Many more immigrants were being deported during the first five years of the previous administration — a policy that provoked minimal press coverage at the time, and even less outrage among pundits and activists. So what, precisely, is distinctive about the Trump approach to immigration? The answer is something like the policy Mitt Romney floated (to widespread mockery and dismissal) during the 2012 Republican primaries: the "self-deportation" of undocumented immigrants from Latin America, and perhaps even some Latino immigrants who are in the country legally.
Proposed by candidate Romney in a January 2012 Republican debate, the idea was to inspire undocumented immigrants to voluntarily leave the country after making it much more difficult for them to be hired for work. Once these workers had self-deported, they would be free to "get in line with everyone else" to re-enter the country with the proper paperwork authorizing them to be hired legally.
Put simply, a President Romney would make the lives of undocumented immigrants so difficult that they would choose to leave.
The problem with Romney's idea is that it assumed the government could accomplish this goal by standing in the way of undocumented immigrants finding jobs, when the reality is that most of them make money doing low-pay, low-skill work (farm labor, child care for individual families, housekeeping) that is notoriously difficult to monitor for compliance with laws precluding the hiring of such workers.
The signal innovation of the Trump administration is to aim for the same goal of self-deportation by more severe and therefore more effective means. Deportations at the border may be down, but interior apprehensions by immigration officers have increased. The latter is far more likely to inspire fear. Crossing the border is always a high-stress, high-risk proposition that's undertaken by immigrants willing to endure it in the hope of making it into the country and then disappearing into the safety of anonymity. But with interior raids becoming more common — and also more capricious — those who make it past the border now have a greater likelihood of apprehension as they go about their lives within the country. That is likely to produce a significant increase in anxiety on the part of undocumented immigrants.
The same could be said for the administration's efforts to encourage greater coordination between ICE and other federal agencies and local law enforcement. The number of interactions that can lead an immigrant to be arrested or otherwise detained and eventually deported is increasing.
Then there are those horrifying reports of children being forcibly separated from their parents at the border. And related accounts of the government "losing" roughly 1,500 children who have entered the country. Now, stories that treat the latter as an appalling government failure are misleading, since most such immigrant children have gone to live with family members already in the U.S., and it's actually preferable that the feds not be able to track their every move within the country. Yet the headlines have an effect — and not just in galvanizing opposition to Trump among progressives. They also advance the administration's agenda by conveying the message to immigrants that coming to the United States is extremely risky for them and their children.
Add in the president's flagrant and unflagging rhetorical bigotry toward Hispanic immigrants, continually eliding the distinction between gang members ("animals") and all of those who come to this country from Latin America, and increasing incidents of verbal and physical abuse directed toward immigrants on the part of private citizens, and we're left with a picture of the United States as a country in which immigrants are unwelcome and face an array of obstacles that threaten to make their lives in this country miserable.
That's how "self-deportation" can and perhaps will succeed under President Trump — even with Congress tied up in knots and deadlocked over immigration policy. Migration from Mexico has been on the decline for years, with a net loss of 140,000 immigrants between 2009 and 2014. It's hard to imagine that this number won't swell now with Trump in the White House and ICE officers raiding workplaces and arresting people on the street and outside courthouses. The more such events take place — and the more news of them gets promulgated throughout the country, including in its immigrant communities — the more likely it is that people will opt to go elsewhere in search of a better life.
Life is becoming far riskier and more dangerous for undocumented immigrants. That's all it could take to turn the U.S. into a country in which the poor and oppressed from other places opt to go elsewhere in search of freedom.