Trump's Deportation Force Is His First Year's Most Lasting Legacy
He's ignored protests to institute a harsh new regime targeting undocumented immigrants
Photo Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
This article is part of a weeklong series looking back at the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
Of the 57 executive orders and 92 presidential memoranda Donald Trump has issued since his inauguration one year ago, a shocking number have been banal or inconsequential. Many pretend to tackle some pressing issue, like the opioid crisis, but actually just instruct his advisors to go figure out something he can do about it later. Many more just continue old programs, at times making them seem new so he can slap his brand on them, as with his June order relating to an apprenticeship program. And many just shift routine governing duties off of Trump’s desk.
Yet amid all this fluff and puffery, Trump has issued a few orders that have had or will soon have a substantive effect on the country. Just days ago, he got the ball rolling on policies that will widen access to suicide prevention services for veterans. In August, he removed restrictions that will make it easier for local law enforcement officers to purchase military-grade surplus gear from the Pentagon. Last January, he set out restrictive guidelines for federal rulemaking that may already be gumming up the flow of regulations, even vital or legally mandated ones.
It’s difficult to pin down which of Trump’s executive actions has had the greatest impact. But after a year of monitoring Trump’s actions and speaking to dozens of experts on their effects, I’d say that this honor goes to a linked pair of orders he issued on January 25, the third and fourth of his presidency. These orders, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” and “Enabling Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” have already had dire effects on the nation, and will continue to do so for years.
Most coverage of these orders last January focused on a few headline-grabbing elements. The former officially called for the creation of Trump’s southern border wall, kicking off ongoing legislative battles over its funding, and also called on Border Patrol to hire 5,000 more agents and build more detention centers. The latter called on federal officials to find ways to punish “sanctuary cities,” and on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hire 10,000 new agents.
None of these topline items have come to fruition. Congress has not been eager to fund a full border wall, or to pony up the massive appropriations that would be needed to drastically increase staffing for Border Patrol and ICE. And the court system has largely held up the administration’s attempts to crack down on sanctuary cities. Looking at those elements alone, this order seems like just another set of blustery but ultimately impotent proposals from Trump.
But the orders also initiated numerous policies ratcheting up immigration enforcement across the nation. Past administrations exercised broad discretion and prioritization about which unauthorized immigrants to focus on, honing in on the most egregious criminal offenders first. Trump's orders widen the categories for prioritization so drastically that, as immigration law experts have told me, they basically theoretically encompass all undocumented individuals.
They also increase opportunities for local law enforcement officers to take on immigration arrest and deportation duties under a program widely criticized for increasing racial profiling and constitutional abuses in participating towns. Relatedly, they increase requirements that local authorities cooperate with federal agents tracking down undocumented immigrants. And they call for the expansion of expedited removal proceedings, currently used on or near the border to quickly turn around recently arrived immigrants, to wider categories of undocumented individuals across the country, among several other policy tweaks and proposals.
It’s possible to read this and the enforcement shifts that have followed as simply a return to the draconian immigration policies of the late George W. Bush or early Barack Obama eras, and an ineffective return at that. While arrests of undocumented immigrants increased by about 42 percent over 2017, according to recent Department of Homeland Security data, those figures still pale in comparison to Bush and Obama’s harshest years of immigration enforcement. Deportations actually decreased by about 6 percent in 2017, and despite Trump’s desire to detain more people longer, limited resources and a backlog of deportation cases has forced his administration to release many individuals it’s apprehended back into their communities.
“It would be hard to get back to early Obama or late Bush numbers,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute. “A lot of the people who were low-hanging fruit for deportation were deported already under the previous administration.” States and cities also have not complied as readily with federal requests for cooperation as they did under Bush or Obama, Nowrasteh added. “It would be very hard to even get back to those numbers without a significant and sustained increase in” resources, he concluded.
Trump’s deportation numbers are also low because most removals under his predecessors occurred near the border and therefore targeted recent arrivals. But the number of people crossing the border is decreasing. Some of this may be tied to a fear of Trump’s proposed deportation crackdowns, as federal agents have asserted. But it also reflects a long trend tied to improving economic conditions in Mexico, demographic shifts in émigré nations, and pre-Trump improvements in border security and deterrence. In any case, there are just fewer people for Trump to deport.
Numbers aside, though, Trump’s orders have still led to the rollout of new and grim enforcement strategies. A closer look at Trump’s first-year immigration numbers shows that, true to his expansion of prioritization categories, he’s drastically increased arrests for non-criminal undocumented immigrants and focused more enforcement on the interior of the country. His administration has also used more aggressive tactics to track down undocumented immigrants in these communities, which range “from conducting warrantless raids... to policing the halls of courthouses and arresting individuals who are there to seek justice,” according to Alejandra Lopez of the Immigrant Defense Project.
In gross numbers, Bush and Obama arrested more undocumented immigrants without criminal records and people in the interior than Trump at the height of their immigration crackdowns. But, immigration law expert Pratheepan Gulasekaram pointed out, they at least tried to be discreet about or explain these arrests, and at times backed off on deporting those individuals. They were also sensitive to the optics of raids near, say, schools. By comparison, Trump’s orders have led to much more aggressive and clearly indiscriminate enforcement.
“Haphazard enforcement is the policy,” said immigration law expert Shoba Wadhia. “Being targeted because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time is the policy. That may have occurred in some cases in earlier administrations, but that at least was not the stated goal or policy of the administration.”
This unilateral policy shift is largely responsible for the drastic increase in horrifying stories of ICE agents scooping up restaurant workers they happened to notice while eating out or targeting law abiding and economically productive families, loved in their small towns .
Likewise, while Trump’s administration may only be conducting a comparable number of workplace raids or audits to his predecessors, they’ve been much more showy about it. Case in point, ICE has leaked details of upcoming raids in California, and it seems clear that these will be punishments for sanctuary practices in the state. Nowrasteh believes this spin on raids is meant “to put the fear of god in people,” and reflects a greater degree of motivating animus.
“Your next best option with the resources you have, I think,” said Gulasekarsm of the tactics flowing from Trump’s immigration orders, “is making a show of random hyper-enforcement with the hope that people do in fact live in fear of removal proceedings, and then perhaps self-deport because they don’t want to live under the psychological stress of this.”
As a result of these new enforcement tactics, said Wadhia, “a larger cross-section of the immigrant community feels vulnerable… There’s vulnerability even among those with the most compelling reasons to be here.”
The experts I’ve spoken to note that harsh immigration crackdowns under Bush and Obama led to fear as well, but today’s concerns seems more pervasive and enduring. Although there’s no hard data on this yet, anecdotes suggest that many undocumented immigrants are going off the radar, meaning that among other things they won’t be cooperating with police to report serious crimes.
This strategic and tactical shift may only be the first wave of Trump’s orders’ effects. Gulasekaram suspects that in the near future we could see more local law enforcement agencies taking up the orders’ offers to take on immigration enforcement duties. “In the absence of more funding, the only way you can increase your enforcement power is to tap into the manpower and information that local law enforcement agencies already have,” he said. He also suspects the administration will make more headway in expanding expedited removals, which will allow Trump to goose his removal numbers without more funds, but will also erode due process and may risk harm to asylum seekers.
It’s also worth acknowledging that even the stalled elements of these orders are having major effects on the nation. The administration is still looking for new ways to punish sanctuary cities, including possibly filing charges against their elected officials. Gulasekaram worries that this sustained pressure will eventually force some smaller areas with fewer resources to back down and increase their compliance with Trump’s emerging immigration policies. And of course Trump’s dedication to scoring border all funding is a big part of what’s jamming up Congress these days.
These elements of Trump’s early orders have not received as much attention as high-profile actions, like his travel bans , which were issued around the same time. But they set the stage for one of the most aggressive, hateful, and indiscriminate immigration crackdowns in modern history, stories of which have been trickling in piecemeal all year. Their effects will likely linger and expand as long as Trump remains in office, and maybe longer.
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