Analysis Human Rights

Amid ‘Widespread Anxiety and Fear,’ Trump Team Inquires About Key Immigration Policies

Tina Vasquez

Made during a December 5 meeting between the team and DHS officials, the request was for information on President Obama's executive orders on immigration sent to agents, “all assets available for border wall and barrier construction,” and DHS’ capacity to expand detention.

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has made a “wide-ranging request for documents and analysis” to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the agency’s immigration programs, Reuters reports.

Made during a December 5 meeting between the team and DHS officials, the request was for information on President Obama’s executive orders on immigration sent to agents, “all assets available for border wall and barrier construction,” and DHS’ capacity to expand detention.

Advocates who spoke to Rewire are “deeply concerned” about what this request will ultimately mean for those benefiting from Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), those who will be placed into detention during the new administration, and those attempting to enter the country on foot through the 100-mile zone known as the borderlands, which according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are routinely treated like a Constitution-free area.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that the internal agency memo it reviewed “offers a glimpse into the president-elect’s strategy for securing the U.S. borders and reversing polices put in place by the Obama administration.”

Based on what has been reported about the connections between increased militarization of the border and allegations of abuse at detention centers, these inquiries suggest there will be a continuation of human rights violations and deaths of migrants under the Trump administration.

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“Widespread Anxiety and Fear”

Reuters reported that Trump’s transition team asked for “copies of every executive order and directive sent to immigration agents since Obama took office in 2009” and “information about whether any migrant records have been changed for any reason, including for civil rights or civil liberties concerns.”

Since the election, young people who benefited from President Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration have publicly expressed concerns not only about Trump dismantling the program, but also about his administration using their personal information, which they submitted to the government for deportation relief, against them.

To be sure, Trump and his team have not explicitly said they would seek to deport DACA beneficiaries, also called DREAMers. However, if the program were terminated, as the president-elect has vowed to do, the recipients would no longer have legal protections to remain in the United States, unless other policies were put into place allowing them to have work permits or other safeguards. The president-elect has said his administration is “going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” but has given no clear indication of what that means.

Congressional leaders are attempting to enact protections for DACA recipients should Trump move to target this population. At the same time, human rights activists are calling on the administration to protect DACA recipients’ personal information. Some, including celebrated author Noam Chomsky, are demanding President Obama use his executive power to pardon all undocumented immigrants. Chomsky asserted in an online video, “He should proceed to what is in fact an urgent necessity: to grant a general pardon to 11 million people who are living and working here, productive citizens in all but name, threatened with deportation by the incoming administration.”

As Rewire reported last month, those who apply for DACA submit applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that involve hundreds of pages of personal information to prove their identity, immigration status, that they were in the United States before turning 16, that they were in the country when DACA was enacted, and that they have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2012. Applicants must also submit to a background check, have their biometrics provided to USCIS, and include copies of their school, medical, and employment records, along with their previous addresses and those of their family members.

Tony Choi, an immigrant rights advocate, told Rewire that Reuters’ report only confirms the fears and anxieties that undocumented communities have felt for a long time.

“Trump inherits the system built by the Obama administration, which means that we have to fight back harder because the Trump team is taking public what the Obama administration had been doing for years discreetly,” Choi said, meaning mass deportations. “Through the election cycle, this was the anxiety that our communities were feeling more intensely.”

Sameera Hafiz, an attorney and advocacy director at We Belong Together, a campaign to mobilize immigrant women, echoed this concern. To the advocacy director, Trump’s team’s requests signify its commitment to “terrorizing young people who came to the U.S. as children,” and the probable increase of law enforcement in communities of color and immigrant communities, she said.

“Trump’s threats against DACA recipients have caused widespread anxiety and fear in immigrant communities,” Hafiz told Rewire in an email. “Many of the women who lead We Belong Together are mothers of the DACA-mented and feel firsthand this sense of panic and insecurity. Legal actions are available, but these options are often available after [a family member has been placed into detention] and do not address the pain and suffering families will go through as a result of Trump’s policies.”

Hafiz recommended that DACA recipients consult with legal experts, such as those found through We Belong Together’s immigration platform, in order to determine their options. She also suggested staying informed of any policies the next administration develops that may affect their status.

Despite Trump’s promise to dismantle DACA and deport as many as three million undocumented immigrants upon taking office, the attorney remains optimistic that, should Trump target those who have been “DACA-mented,” he will have a fight on his hands. Even DHS secretary Jeh Johnson recently warned against targeting DACA recipients.

“Because of the powerful organizing and movement building work DREAMers have done, there is widespread public support for this community, and it would be a mistake for Trump to focus his deportation forces on them,” Hafiz said.

While the average U.S. voter seems supportive of young, undocumented people who were brought to the country as children by their parents, some everyday people show no sympathy for newly arrived migrants crossing the border. A January 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 61 percent of Americans — including 42 percent of Republicans—supported granting some temporary deportation reprieve and work authorization for undocumented immigrants as consistent with Obama’s executive actions, whereas a March 2016 A.T. Kearney/NPD Group poll found that 61 percent of Americans agree that “continued immigration into the country jeopardizes the United States.”

Even while people in the United States hold differing views about immigration, the tactics used in an attempt to stop border crossers from traveling into the country on foot could ramp up under Trump, the Reuters report suggests. This includes the possibility of increasing resources for Operation Phalanx, an aerial surveillance program that during its height in the Bush administration had 6,000 Army National Guard soldiers monitoring the southern border. Operation Phalanx was reduced during the Obama administration, though in November there were conflicting reports as to whether the operation existed anymore.

Conditions in the Borderlands

In a phone interview with Rewire, Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso, Texas-based organization the Border Network for Human Rights, said that discussions about immigration reform by Republicans and Democrats alike have prioritized border security above all else. Concerns raised by immigrants’ rights advocates about migrant lives have been largely ignored. “Even back in 2000 when these conversations first started, we were seeing Border Patrol act abusively and act with impunity, so the idea of expanding this system was terrifying,” he said.

Garcia, whose organization works directly with migrants and families in the borderlands, told Rewire that there are already “layers of violations” happening at the border, under Obama’s administration.

“The border enforcement policies of the U.S. are pushing [migrants] to more isolated areas to cross the border. This ‘Prevention through Deterrence’ has lead to countless human rights violations and hundreds of migrants dying every year. They are not dying because they wanted to or chose to by migrating, as people say, they are dying because of this policy,” he said.

report released last month from two Tucson, Arizona-based immigrants’ rights organizations—Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths—explained the “crisis of disappearance” happening since U.S. Border Patrol launched its “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy in 1994 to avert border crossers who are attempting to migrate into the country. According to the report, the displacement and disappearance of thousands of migrants attempting to cross into the United States is linked to the continued expansion and militarization of the borderlands.

Furthermore, strategies like “Prevention Through Deterrence” have not successfully ended border crossing. According to a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, interviews with thousands of migrants revealed how “the obstacle course on the border doesn’t keep people out. More than 9 out of 10 who come to the border succeed eventually in gaining entry, if not on the first try then the second or third. Fences can always be climbed over, dug under, or gone around.”

“It doesn’t work, because we’re not dealing with the root causes of immigration, which is the violence in Central America and Mexico that people are fleeing. Their lives are under threat—and a wall isn’t going to stop them,” said Garcia. “I believe we are the second most militarized border in the world, with the only exception that we’re not at war with a neighbor. The idea that a wall will stop migration is distorted rhetoric with a political goal to scapegoat immigrants for many of the United States’ problems. It’s an irrational policy not based on reality.”

There are also the alleged conditions U.S. citizens and residents say they are subjected to in this 100-mile zone, and how these conditions could only worsen under Trump. Those on the border, even in major metropolitan areas like El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California, endure a different kind of policing than the rest of the United States, Garcia asserted.

“These aggressive enforcement policies are routine—and they’re racist. As a Latino, you are 100 times more likely to be stopped. Only expect to see more of this abuse at the border and now that people feel like it’s OK to be proud of being racist [because of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail], I think [Border Patrol] agents will be more openly racist,” the executive director said, referring to the same agency whose union endorsed Trump. “We will see an increased level of mistreatment and misconduct by Border Patrol agents—and there’s no way to stop it. No independent accountability measure has been put into place or will be put into place, and Congress doesn’t care. These things have been happening for a long time, but now we will face some of the most brutal aggression against immigrants and border communities.”

“Liberty Should Be the Norm”

Reuters also noted that Trump’s transition team has asked DHS about its capacity to expand immigrant detention. This doesn’t come as a surprise, given the president-elect plans to immediately deport millions of undocumented immigrants. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Trump said, “What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers—we have a lot of these people, probably two million, it could even be three million. We are getting them out of our country, or we’re going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country. They’re here illegally.”

For advocates, this translates to the detention system growing hastily. Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network, told NPR on Wednesday, “Detention is an inherent part of the machinery of deportation, and so I think we’re looking ahead at massive expansion of our detention system.”

As Rewire reported in February 2016:

According to the American Immigration Council, because “there are no statutory limits to the amount of time a non-citizen may be held in immigration detention,” the length of detention stays for asylum seekers varies depending on, among other factors, the status of their application. For asylum applicants, the average length of detention is 65 days, but many asylum applicants are kept in immigration detention for several months, sometimes even years.

U.S. government policies ensure that there are always plenty of people in detention. As the Nation reported in August 2014, the United States keeps at least 34,000 undocumented immigrants in detention each day for the purpose of meeting a quota, also known as the “detention-bed mandate.” The quota, which the Nation reported took effect in 2007, appears in the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Advocates contend the quota is linked to industry lobbying. Since its implementation, “the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy,” according to the Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership.

The expansion of the immigration detention system has proven to be profitable for private prison  corporations and local governments. Of the roughly 350 facilities used to detain immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), only about eight are owned and run by ICE. According to the National Immigration Forum, ICE contracts with more than 240 state and county jails and private correctional corporations to house immigrant detainees.

The average U.S. citizen isn’t aware that detention centers may exist in their community, even though it’s costing taxpayers billions. The system operates without much visibility, yet in 2014 DHS requested some $2 billion in detention funding for the year; the agency maintains the detention system costs over $5 million a day.

Detention centers under the Obama administration saw numerous allegations of abuse and neglect, including in-custody deaths.

In October, 52-year-old Jose Jaramillo died of a kidney infection while held at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. “Under the Bureau of Prisons infectious disease regulations, which [the private prison company operating the center, CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America] was bound by contract to follow, Jaramillo should have received a routine pneumococcal vaccine that would have cost CCA about $9,” Rewire previously reported. Instead, he received cough medicine and saltwater. CoreCivic reportedly did not refer Jaramillo to a physician, going against its own policy that could have saved Jaramillo’s life.

Under an anti-immigrant administration seeking to further stigmatize and criminalize undocumented immigrants, it seems unlikely that accountability measures will be built into or enforced in the ever-expanding detention system. More in-custody deaths seem inevitable unless politicians push for an overhaul that moves the country away from its, as the ACLU put it, “’lock ’em up’ approach to detention.”

“In America,” the ACLU argues on its website, “liberty should be the norm for everyone—and detention the last resort.”

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