Last month during his much-anticipated immigration policy speech in Phoenix, the self-proclaimed “King of Illegal Immigration,” Donald Trump, outlined his priorities.
They include: build a wall along the Southern border; end “catch and release”; create a deportation task force initially focusing on criminals who are in the country “illegally”; defund sanctuary cities, which offer migrants some solace; cancel President Barack Obama’s executive actions to extend deportation protections to undocumented people; conduct extreme vetting of immigrants entering the United States to block immigration from some (Muslim) nations; force other countries to take back those whom the United States wants to deport; put a biometric (fingerprint) visa tracking system in place; strengthen the federal E-Verify system, which blocks jobs for undocumented people; and limit legal immigration, lowering it to “historic norms.”
At first glance, Trump’s proposals may come off as more stringent than those pushed by current and past U.S. presidents. But they mark a continuation of what is already in place—either due to existing laws or the policies that were put into place by the current administration.
President Obama has made some significant gains for undocumented communities. But he’s also cemented his legacy as “deporter-in-chief,” leaving behind “to his successor the most sophisticated and well-funded human-expulsion machine in the history of the country,” as Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia reported for the Nation. Whether or not you agree with Trump’s proposals, there’s no denying they follow a long succession of anti-immigrant policies introduced by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Trump’s Proposals: More of the Same
During his Arizona immigration policy speech on August 31, Trump said that enforcement policies under his administration would include “removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges—that is, those relying on public welfare or straining the safety net, along with millions of recent illegal arrivals and overstays who’ve come here under the current administration.” But as NPR reported in a fact-check of Trump’s speech, prioritizing the removal of immigrants who commit crimes, threaten security, and who have arrived recently, “is essentially mirroring the Obama administration’s current enforcement priorities.”
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There was also the issue of border security, with Trump saying he would use “the best technology, including above- and below-ground sensors,” towers, and aerial surveillance. Again, this is already being done—and no administration has had more border security than President Obama’s.
And Trump’s proposed wall is effectively already in place. According to the Obama administration website, “the resources that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dedicates to security at the Southwest border are at an all-time high. Today, there are 3,000 additional Border Patrol agents along the Southwest Border, and our border fencing, unmanned aircraft surveillance systems, and ground surveillance systems have more than doubled since 2008.”
Even when President Obama announced an expansion to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects undocumented immigrants who meet specific requirements from deportation for two years and allows them to legally work in the United States, his executive action also included strengthening border security to “fundamentally alter” the way resources are marshaled to the border. DHS commissioned three task forces: one to focus on the southern maritime border; the second for the southern land border and the West Coast; and the third to focus on investigations for the previous two.
President Obama has spent the last eight years reinforcing the border in ways that Trump would only attempt to bolster under his proposals.
Another of Trump’s priorities is to end what he says is the Obama administration’s practice of “catch and release,” meaning that when undocumented immigrants come into contact with law enforcement—no matter the reason—they are not being detained and deported, as Trump has said they should be. In Trump’s Arizona immigration speech, he said he would bring back the now-defunct, highly controversial Secure Communities (S-Comm) program put into place by President George W. Bush and escalated under President Obama, though he seems unaware that its replacement—the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP)—is essentially the same program.
S-Comm required local law enforcement agencies to submit biometric information from anyone they arrested to a federal database. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would then submit detainers—written requests—requiring local law enforcement to hold those who were undocumented until they could get picked up for deportation. Countless horror stories emerged in the years Secure Communities was in operation, like mothers with no criminal history being put in deportation proceedings for selling ice cream on the street and college students being sent to detention centers for broken car taillights. The program ended in 2014 and was swiftly replaced by PEP.
Under PEP, fingerprints obtained by local law enforcement are still sent to ICE, so any interaction an undocumented person has with local law enforcement can lead to their deportation. The only real difference between S-Comm and PEP, as PBS reported in November 2014, is that ICE no longer asks law enforcement agencies to hold someone until they are deported. “Instead, ICE will ask that authorities only notify them when they plan to release someone in custody that might be of interest,” explained PBS. “Officials can still, however, issue a detainer if they believe they have probable cause to deport someone who hasn’t yet been convicted, which has troubled some immigration attorneys who worry that the policy could still be used to deport people who are lower priorities.”
During his speech in Arizona, Trump said he wants to issue detainers for “illegal immigrants who are arrested for any crime whatsoever, and they will be placed into immediate removal proceedings.” Later, he called S-Comm “highly successful.” This, despite the program sometimes resulting in the deportation of American citizens and despite the fact that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson essentially admitted in November 2014 Secure Communities was a horrible failure that “attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled in litigation.”
Trump also wants to defund sanctuary cities, which are cities that choose not to prosecute or target undocumented immigrants because of their citizenship status. During his speech in Arizona, Trump said that President Obama supports sanctuary cities, overlooking the fact that as Vice reported, Obama’s Department of Justice looked into defunding sanctuary cities as recently as July, threatening to strip federal grant money from cities that do not cooperate with ICE.
The Republican presidential nominee is also calling for a biometric visa tracking system, which would presumably include biometric records, such as fingerprints, that could more quickly identify those entering the country. As mentioned previously, local law enforcement is already working with ICE as part of the PEP program, collecting biometric records on all undocumented immigrants who come into contact with law enforcement.
Attorney Julie Mao, enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told Rewire that under the Obama administration, ICE now regularly uses biometric devices in raids. During a segment on CNN in June, ICE agents can be seen using the biometric fingerprinting devices on day laborers. Mao also told Rewire that during the raid on a member of the North Carolina teens known as NC6, who were taken into ICE custody on their way to school under Operation Border Guardian, ICE fingerprinted everyone in the house, both documented and undocumented, and it is unclear what the federal agency does with the information collected.
In addition, Trump would like to strengthen the use of E-Verify, a national system that allows employers to check whether someone can legally work in the United States. As PBS reported, the internet-based system “compares information from an employee’s Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.” The reasons for the system are two-fold: to reduce an employer’s legal liability if it hires someone with falsified documents and, according to the Obama administration, to identify and hold accountable the businesses that knowingly employ undocumented workers. Like Trump, Obama has called E-Verify an “important enforcement tool.”
E-Verify was established in 1996, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimated that as of 2014, half a million U.S. companies were using the system. As of November 2015, 20 states had enacted legislation requiring the mandatory use of E-Verify. This includes states with the highest concentration of undocumented immigrants, such as Arizona and Texas.
About Those Mass Deportations
One aspect of Trump’s immigration plan that has received the most ire is his goal to create a “deportation force” to target those he says are in the country illegally. This is a practice the United States has engaged in before—and Trump referenced this fact in his Arizona speech, saying President Dwight Eisenhower’s deportation plan did not go far enough. The Republican candidate didn’t mention that this “deportation plan” was called Operation Wetback, something he’s disregarded several times throughout the course of his campaign. Back in January, when confronted during an interview about the operation’s derogatory name and the fact that many consider it a “shameful chapter” in U.S. history, Trump contested this.
“Well, some people do, and some people think it was a very effective chapter,” Trump said. “When they brought them back (to Mexico), they removed some, everybody else left. And it was very successful, everyone said. So I mean, that’s the way it is. Look, we either have a country, or we don’t. If we don’t have strong borders, we have a problem.”
The United States has a long history of forcibly removing both Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and Operation Wetback is just one chapter of the story. During World War II, the federal government began the Mexican Farm Labor Program, commonly referred to as the Bracero program, bringing Mexican workers into the country to work jobs that could not be filled otherwise. The Braceros were in the country legally, but other companies not part of the program brought Mexican workers into the United States as well.
In 1954, the Eisenhower administration launched Operation Wetback, targeting workers brought in outside the Bracero program, as well as Mexicans who crossed the border on their own. Advocates estimate that between 250,000 and 1.3 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were targeted during this operation. Trump considers this a “success,” while fellow conservatives even contend the program was “tragic.”
Back in November 2015, this is how Alfonso Aguilar, formerly of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, characterized the program to NPR. The American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership engages the Latino community on conservative causes with the end-goal of garnering greater Latino support for conservative candidates.
“Human rights were violated. People were removed to distant locations without food and water. There were many deaths, unnecessary deaths. Sometimes even U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin, of Mexican origin were removed. It was a travesty. It was terrible. Immigrants were humiliated. So to say it’s a success story is ridiculous. It shows that Mr. Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Aguilar said.
But before Operation Wetback, there was Mexican Repatriation, which coincided with the Great Depression. Raids of workplaces and public places took place in the 1930s and 1940s, resulting in the deportation of two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—with more than half of those targeted being U.S. citizens. The reason? White citizens believed Mexicans were taking their jobs.
This claim has been debunked time and time again.
In his Arizona immigration policy speech, Trump said that if “we’re going to make our immigration system work, then we have to be prepared to talk honestly and without fear about these important and very sensitive issues. For instance, we have to listen to the concerns that working people, our forgotten working people, have over the record pace of immigration and its impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills, and general living conditions.”
But Trump’s immigration proposals have yet to address the cost of mass deportations—an estimated $400 billion to $600 billion over 20 years—or how he plans to navigate the economic devastation of deporting every unauthorized worker currently residing in the United States, which financial experts say would endanger the U.S. economy.
President Obama’s “Deportation Machine” Rolls On
Regardless of who is elected, the “deportation machine” constructed by the Obama Administration is likely to continue.
Writing for the Nation, reporters Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia detail how in eight years, President Obama has increased the budget for immigration enforcement by 300 percent. His administration also has increased the number of undocumented immigrants in detention to record levels; expanded the border court system under Operation Streamline so that in four years, more than 209,000 individuals served federal prison sentences “for no reason other than crossing the border”; made DHS the largest law-enforcement agency in the country; and deported more undocumented immigrants than any president in U.S. history.
But, as undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas pointed out to Fox News back in June, the most important question isn’t being addressed in a real way by political leaders.
“The question for me is, what do you want to do with all of us? There are 12 million of us here. That’s the size of Ohio,” Vargas told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. “They keep playing political football.”
The United States has positioned itself as a “nation of immigrants,” but this is a country with a long history of refusing refuge to those most in need, especially those escaping violence and economic hardships in their country of origin. The influx of Central American asylum seekers is primarily women and children attempting to escape gender-based violence, and the current U.S. immigration system only further traumatizes this vulnerable population by placing them in detention centers or deporting them to their deaths. The approach should be to fix this system that exploits and harms undocumented communities, but Trump’s strategy—it seems—is to double down.