Administration Rattles Sabers at Undocumented Immigrants

Scenes like these of deported immigrants could multiply rapidly if the Trump administration is serious about going after nearly all undocumented people. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Now that the Trump travel ban is at least temporarily out of the news headlines, attention is shifting to the broader issue of the new administration’s overall immigration policies. And with today’s “guidance memos” from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, it is becoming clearer than ever that Team Trump is signaling a major new wave of deportations. The memos are meant to explain the earlier presidential executive order on immigration policy that was overshadowed by the brouhaha over the travel ban and the Trump-induced preoccupation with border-wall construction.

The most important thing to understand about the initial shift in policy is that it is replacing the Obama administration’s carefully calibrated deportation strategy with one that treats all undocumented immigrants —with the perhaps-temporary exception of the “dreamers” given protection by Obama in the the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order — as potential targets. Thus all that is missing for a massive new wave of deportations is the infrastructure. And Kelly’s memos are focused on building up the resources necessary to round ’em up and move ’em out.

An earlier draft of Kelly’s “guidance” discussed the federalization of up to 100,000 National Guard personnel for deportation duty. That alarming idea did not make it into the actual memos. But here’s what did:

In the so-called guidance documents released on Tuesday, the department is directed to begin the process of hiring 10,000 new immigration and customs agents, expanding the number of detention facilities and creating an office within Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help families of those killed by undocumented immigrants …

The directives would also instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, to begin reviving a program that recruits local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to help with deportation, effectively making them de facto immigration agents.

You will notice a lot of the “guidance” is prospective: The administration is beginning to do this or that. That could indicate an element of caution, or perhaps the need for more funding from Congress, not to mention pledges of cooperation from the local governments who would have to make their law-enforcement personnel available to become part-time ICE agents.

But these signals also most likely have an ulterior motive:

[DHS] officials also made clear that the department intended to aggressively follow Mr. Trump’s promise that immigration laws be enforced to the maximum extent possible, marking a significant departure from the procedures in place under President Barack Obama.

That promise has generated fear and anger in the immigrant community, and advocates for immigrants have warned that the new approach is a threat to many undocumented immigrants who had previously been in little danger of being deported.

“Fear in the immigrant community” is itself a crucial tool for this administration given the signs that it would prefer that as many as possible of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country decide to self-deport. It is certainly less expensive and visible than running down huge numbers of people, holding them in detention facilities, and then shipping them out of the country. All the saber rattling, moreover, will thrill the nativists in Trump’s electoral base nearly as much as actually deporting those pesky people who may be hard-working, taxpaying people doing jobs Americans don’t want, but who broke the law, thus earning whatever ill treatment they receive.

If the self-deportation strategy doesn’t work substantively or politically, then we will find out whether Kelly and Trump have the stomach for the police-state tactics that would be necessary to deport many millions of people by force.

Administration Rattles Sabers at Undocumented Immigrants