The Obama Administration’s New Deportation Wave Presents a Challenge to Democrats

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ICE Agents Detain Suspected Undocumented Immigrants In Raids
A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Los Angeles.Photo: John Moore/2015 Getty Images

Donald Trump is an exceptional figure in modern American politics. No major-party nominee has boasted the Donald’s combination of policy ignorance, transparent mendacity, and open hostility to the norms — both social and constitutional — that undergird an open, democratic society.

Since Trump’s aberrant political style inspired revulsion from elites in both parties, even some outlets with pretenses toward objectivity felt comfortable calling the candidate’s racist, authoritarian, or simply absurd proposals exactly what they were. This was, for the most part, a healthy development. But it did come with a drawback: By calling out Trump’s mathematically impossible budget proposals, or his defense of reinstituting torture — but refusing to do the same for those of his GOP rivals — some mainstream political reporting fostered the impression that these failings were unique to the Donald. (In truth, the difference between Trump and other Republicans on these subjects was one of degree, not kind.)

Occasionally, liberals have exceptionalized Trump in an analogous fashion, as the Boston Globe editorial board did with its dystopic “April 9, 2017” front page:

Obviously, Donald Trump and Barack Obama have radically different immigration policies. And the GOP nominee’s plan to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants would send America several miles down the road to a police state. But we don’t need to wait for a future, Trumpist dystopia to write the headline “Deportations to Begin.”

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is preparing to launch a 30-day “surge” of arrests focused on Central American mothers and children who have already been instructed to leave the United States. The operation will be the largest deportation sweep since a two-day drive in January that resulted in the detention* of 121 perople. More than 60,000 “family units” — defined as mothers and children traveling together — have crossed into the United States illegally since 2013. Many of these families were fleeing an upsurge of violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

There’s nothing unprecedented about this kind of enforcement action, and to allow all of the migrants who have entered the country over the past few years to reside here permanently would likely stretch the bounds of executive authority.

But for individual undocumented mothers and children, being rounded up and deported by a liberal president’s ICE agents probably won’t feel any less terrifying than being hunted down by a pseudo-fascist’s “deportation force.” 

For progressives, this raises the question: Is Trump’s deportation plan outrageous because of its scale, or because the deportation of noncriminal undocumented residents is morally unacceptable in and of itself?

The reaction of the two Democratic presidential candidates to the Reuters report suggests that the party remains ambivalent but is trending toward the latter. Bernie Sanders condemned the operation in terms of moral absolutes, saying, “Sending these people back into harm’s way is wrong.” Clinton also met the proposal with outrage, but insistently framed her objection around the size and scope of the operation. “I’m against large scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities,” she said in a statement. “Large scale raids are not productive and do not reflect who we are as a country.”

And yet: If a raid aimed at hundreds of undocumented migrants — who came as part of an influx of 60,000 — is unacceptable in its scale, what practical option does the state have for dealing with this population other than granting the vast majority legal status?

The terms of the Democratic candidates’ debate over deportation stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s record of aggressive enforcement. At the Democratic debate in Miami, Univision’s Jorge Ramos asked if the candidates would commit to allowing every single law-abiding undocumented immigrant currently in the country to remain here. Neither candidate felt comfortable saying no.

Certainly, this reflects the growing influence of Hispanic voters and advocates for the undocumented within the party. But Trump also deserves some credit for the development — the more Democrats define themselves in opposition to the demagogue, the more difficult it becomes to defend small-scale versions of his policies.

*This has been corrected to show that 121 people were detained in the January deportation raids, not deported.