migrant crisis

The Flaw in Trump’s Intimidation-Based Immigration Strategy

A 2018 ICE raid. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

A particularly vicious dog did not bark or bite this weekend, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

Long-threatened Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids appeared to begin Sunday on a decidedly small scale, with a scattering of arrests that nonetheless sparked new fears in immigrant communities.

The raids — hyped for weeks by President Trump — were to take place in major U.S. cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami, Denver, Atlanta, Baltimore and Houston.

As of Sunday evening, there were no reports of arrests in the Los Angeles area. And the widespread raids that some feared failed to materialize.

There were scattered reports of ICE enforcement “actions” in Florida and in New York — but nothing like the mass wave of arrests and deportations Team Trump had threatened, which struck fear throughout immigrant communities from coast to coast.

Perhaps the big deportation push that we’ve all half-expected from the day Trump was elected will arrive tomorrow or next week or next month or next year. But it’s entirely possible that this and related developments reflect a deliberate strategy of intimidating migrants already in the U.S. into voluntarily leaving the country, or more importantly, deterring others from making the trek. That, after all, would reflect the operative “self-deportation” philosophy (to use the term that Mitt Romney inelegantly introduced in 2012) that seems to underlie much of the president’s and his administration’s bluster on immigration matters generally — not to mention Trump’s personal style.

The possibility that the “ultimate raid” talk is another head-fake is also reflected in the administration’s legal strategy for dealing with migrants, which took a big step toward a decisively severe — and probably doomed — direction today, as The Hill reported:

The Trump administration is moving to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced Monday.

According to text of the rule set to publish in the Federal Register on Tuesday, asylum seekers who pass through another country before reaching the United States will be ineligible for asylum when they reach the southern border.

The move marks an acceleration in the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce the number of migrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico and has the potential to considerably reduce the number of asylum claims.

The odds of this new rule surviving judicial scrutiny are low:

The move is likely to face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union promised to “swiftly” counter the new restrictions in court shortly after the rule’s announcement.

“The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country’s legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project said in a statement. This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly.”

But that makes no real difference if the main thrust of the administration’s strategy is to regularly and comprehensively remind migrants (and all other immigrants) of its attitude of unflagging hostility to their presence, encouraging them to go home or stay away without the muss and fuss and expense of setting up massive new transit camps, deploying cattle cars to the border, and taking all the other gestapo-type measures that would accompany a genuine mass-deportation regime.

Empty bluster, moreover, is probably just as effective, in the short run, as any authentic effort to run migrants and other immigrants out of the country, in terms of keeping Trump’s hard-core nativist base revved up to a high pitch of intense fury over the “invasion” of America by swarthy hordes of criminals and freeloaders. And you can make a pretty good case that this is the president’s general approach to his and the MAGA folks’ many enemies, at home and abroad, as Politico noted last month when Trump first announced and then postponed the big migrant raid:

The confusion surrounding the proposed raids, which were due to begin Sunday in more than a dozen cities, was the latest episode in which Trump threatened tough action, only to pull back. Last week, he said he had authorized limited strikes against Iran before canceling them shortly before they were due to launch.

Eventually, of course, the big-con approach to problem-solving undermines its own credibility, forcing those painful and controversial actions it is designed to evoke and then avoid, or worse yet surrender. So it’s a tricky thing to sustain. And at least when it comes to immigration policy, it’s possible all the head-fakes are designed to lure critics into cynical complacency, or make actual outrages (like the current treatment of migrant families on the southern border) seem less horrifying than what an administration committed to “making America white again” (as Nancy Pelosi recently put it) might do in an uninhibited moment. That it represents what is essentially a series of terroristic threats by the president of the United States ought to give pause even to Trump’s supporters.

The Flaw in Trump’s Intimidation-Based Immigration Strategy