If any of the frustrated congressional Republicans assembling in Philadelphia yesterday to wallow in uncertainty over Obamacare or tax policy had looked southwest through a window, they might have perceived an enormous, metaphorical dust cloud over Washington. That is where newly installed President Donald Trump was issuing a fusillade of executive orders (and reviewing others that were promptly leaked), several of them involving his signature issue of immigration.
Assuming news reports involving draft executive orders are indications of the way the wind is blowing in the Trump White House, in short order we will have a blitz of new immigration policies and practices imposed by the 45th president that include building the famous border wall; supporting that wall with a massive increase in border-control agents and temporary detention facilities; revocation of Obama’s DACA and DAPA initiatives providing protection from prosecution for Dreamers and their parents; a beefed-up e-verify program aimed at employers of undocumented workers; new measures to prevent immigrants from accessing any sort of public benefits; punitive actions toward so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to help the feds enforce immigration laws; and plans for a tightening of legal immigration as well.
Sure, some cynics may have thought Trump’s hard-line talk about an immigration crackdown was just campaign-season chump change attractive to the talk-radio-listening element of the GOP base. But no one can honestly say the man didn’t give us all fair warning.
While it is easy to get bogged down in the details of these steps, it is important to understand that many of them are addressing what is at the moment a phantom menace as illusory as the immigrant voter fraud Trump says he will “investigate”: that would be the idea that huge numbers of bad people are pouring over an unprotected Mexican border to do crimes and go on welfare. The simple fact is that net immigration from Mexico is at zero. So the massive cost (an estimated $20 billion for construction and $13 billion a year for staffing) and energy involved in building the famous wall and backing it up with the appropriate resources to seal off the border is basically a symbolic initiative to solve a problem that no longer exists.
Meanwhile, the Trump initiatives dealing with the real immigration problem, the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., are mostly aimed at making these people feel insecure and exposed to prosecution. DACA’s protection of 750,000 Dreamers, and DAPA’s prospective protection (it has been held up by a federal judge) of as many as 4 million more, would go away (after temporary work permits expire, to be exact). Presumably the restrictions on public benefits, the enhanced e-verify program, and attacks on sanctuary cities would make still more of the 11 million fear the next knock on the door or traffic stop.
What Trump is not doing, however, is putting together the plan or providing the resources to in fact prosecute and deport the undocumented population, despite his repeated promises to eschew any sort of amnesty for people who entered the country illegally. Yes, he will have some showy deportations of people convicted of crimes (which would simply continue the enforcement priorities of the Obama administration). But there is no sign yet Trump is willing or able to undertake the immense costs (one estimate for a “total deportation” plan is $114 billion) and risk the humanitarian blowback of a mass-deportation program. For one thing, it could create a major collision with the Roman Catholic Church, a natural focal point for resistance in the U.S. and across Latin America, extending most likely to the Latin American Pope.
So at present, all of Trump’s posturing and policy-making on illegal immigration really amounts to a loud and expensive plan to encourage self-deportation of the undocumented by making their lives — and most likely, the lives of legal immigrants and U.S. citizens who happen to look like them — as difficult as possible. In some respects, this approach will arouse even more hostility than a mass-deportation strategy, precisely because it depends on encouraging broad-based suspicion toward Latinos, including those who have broken no laws and have as much of a right to the peaceful enjoyment of life as Trump himself. Combined with Trump’s regular statements of support for racial profiling as a law-enforcement tool, a self-deportation strategy could make the United States a very uncomfortable place for nonwhite people, just as it has been so often in the past (you know, those years of greatness Trump’s core supporters want to bring back).
So does Trump simply lack the courage to come right out and ask for money for the thousands of cattle cars and the vast network of transit camps that he’d be focused on if deportation rather than self-deportation was his goal? That’s unclear; maybe he will go there in the future. For now, though, it looks like his immigration blitz is mostly smoke and mirrors, with a nasty undertone of white identity politics.