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Trump's Policies Won't Get Rid of Immigrants

Instead, they'll add to the backlog of deportation cases while immigrants wait their turn in detention facilities.
January 27, 2017, 5:00am
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, in a speech at the Department of Homeland Security, President Donald Trump made it clear that his campaign promise to gut the country of undocumented immigrants would become a reality. "The day is over where [undocumented immigrants] can stay in this country and wreak havoc," he said, before announcing a pair of executive orders to build a wall along the southern border and defund "sanctuary cities" that shield immigrants from deportation.


"We're going to get them out, and we're going to get them out fast, and John Kelly is going to lead the way," Trump said.

Kelly, Trump's pick for DHS secretary, plans to accomplish this by tripling the number of US Customs and Border Protection agents along the southern border with Mexico for the purpose of detaining and deporting every unauthorized immigrant caught trying to cross it—including minors, families, and asylum seekers. And once they're captured, the Trump administration plans to "create more detention space" to hold these immigrants awaiting deportation, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, announced on Wednesday.

"This is going to create a boondoggle for the private prison industry."—Joanne Lin

In addition to overseeing construction of the wall, Kelly is responsible for the "immediate" construction of the new detention centers, or the establishment of new contracts with private prison corporations. After the Department of Justice's announcement in August 2016 that it would phase out its private prison contracts, DHS's advisory council—which included Kelly—reviewed its own use of for-profit detention centers but decided to continue its contracts. As of last month, approximately 65 percent of immigrant detainees were held in privately operated facilities.

"This is going to create a boondoggle for the private prison industry," Joanne Lin, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. "Our best estimate is that it will cost [American taxpayers] $9 billion over the next decade."


Trump's executive order requires the mandatory detention of all people arriving through the southern border—including migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Previously, Border Patrol agents used their discretion to either detain or release immigrants seeking asylum, allowing some to live freely while their asylum cases were processed.

According to Lin, the change will most adversely affect unaccompanied minors and families traveling with children, many of whom arrive in the US fleeing violence in Central America. Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 400,000 migrants crossing the southern border in Fiscal Year 2016, nearly 78,000 of whom were minors crossing over with their parents. Under the new executive order, migrants could face months—or years—in detention, only to be deported once their case is adjudicated.

"We think this is going to result in untold numbers of immigrants being detained and languishing in detention centers for years, because the system is so backlogged," Lin said. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, DHS had 533,909 pending immigration cases at the end of 2016. That backlog is expected to increase under Trump.

Related: Welcome to Stewart Detention Center, the Black Hole of America's Immigration System

"Private facilities have no incentive to provide benefits like rehabilitative programs, or more than the bare minimum of health and mental health services," said Marie Mark, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project. A Southern Poverty Law Center report from November 2016 found that detention centers in the South regularly denied detainees' due process rights and failed to provide adequate basic sanitation, nutrition, or medical care. In some centers, detainees went months without spending time outdoors.

Besides border crossers, immigration detention facilities could likely fill up with other immigrants on Trump's deportation list. A second executive order, also issued on Wednesday, targeted immigrants who currently live in the United States by calling for the federal defunding of "sanctuary cities." The order states that immigrants who have been convicted of a crime, charged with a crime, or committed criminal acts without being charged are "prioritized for removal." That includes permanent residents and people on temporary visas, or "legal" immigrants. Trump also said he plans on publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

"In general, the executive order seems to endorse the idea that there should be increased enforcement, and the enforcement should be targeted towards a larger group of people," Sarah Gillman, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Immigration Law Unit, told me.

"This administration wants to target people through our criminal justice system, regardless of how the criminal justice system has dealt with their case," Mark said, referring to the detention of immigrants who have "committed criminal acts" but were never charged. "We live in a world where it's supposed to be 'innocent until proven guilty,' but these orders say that only applies to some people. And others will be targeted as criminals, even if there are no criminal charges against them."

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