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How Trump's war on immigrants could backfire

The crackdown is galvanizing political opposition that may end up costing Republicans control of Congress.

by Keegan Hamilton
Jan 19 2018, 2:11pm

Watch "America First," an in-depth look at Trump's unprecedented first year office, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. on HBO.

Shortly after Donald Trump placed his hand on two Bibles — one a gift from his mother, the other once owned by Abraham Lincoln — and swore the oath of office last January 20, he delivered an inaugural address that set the tone for the year to come. The remarks, written by top aides Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, totaled 1,433 words. Trump never once uttered “immigrant” or “immigration,” but when he vowed to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries,” the message was clear.

Five days after the inauguration, Trump signed an executive order that made virtually anyone in the country without authorization a target for deportation. His administration spent the year shutting out refugees, stripping protections for Dreamers, banning travelers from Muslim-majority countries, and upending communities across the country by arresting and deporting longtime residents solely because their papers aren’t in perfect order.

All this comes as no surprise: Trump did exactly what he’d promised during his campaign. His rationale for the war on immigrants, shaped by Bannon and Miller, has always been to return jobs to native-born workers and enhance public safety. That reasoning appeals to the nationalistic instincts of Trump's base — those who believe that foreigners mean lost jobs, higher crime, and more terrorism.The White House did not respond to a VICE News inquiry about Trump’s immigration policies, which included a request to interview Miller.

Yet despite the first-year offensive against immigrants, Trump has somehow still failed to follow through on several key pledges. He has no money to build the wall. The courts have struck down his attempts at a Muslim ban. Sanctuary cities still receive federal funding. And there’s a growing possibility, advocates and experts say, that his policies could backfire, helping the very gangs he claims to be fighting, worsening the global refugee crisis, and galvanizing political opposition that costs Republicans control of Congress.

On a press call about the congressional showdown on DACA, the Obama-era program for nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants that Trump summarily axed last year, the mood among immigration activists was one of anger, defiance, and resolve. Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, delivered an ultimatum to the GOP. Poll show that 86 percent of voters want to keep Dreamers in the country, and failing act will have repercussions.

“Keep Virginia and Alabama in your minds,” Matos said, referring to two stinging Republican losses in recent months. “We are watching and we are organizing and we’re going to make sure that we continue to knock on doors and educate and mobilize our communities, so that when our people go to the polls, they will know who was with us and who was against us.”

DACA, The Wall, and the "shithole" shitshow

With the one-year anniversary of his inauguration approaching, Trump faces a moment of reckoning. While he briefly signaled a willingness to strike a deal on DACA — calling for "a bipartisan bill of love" — any sign of conciliation quickly went down the proverbial shithole during his meeting last week in the Oval Office with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The sticking point, people in the room have said, was reluctance to accept immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations. Now the Democrats could force a government shutdown if Trump and the GOP refuse to strike a deal that brings DACA back permanently.

The big hurdle is Trump’s wall. The White House wants to budget $18 billion for the project, which would include 316 miles of new fencing and upgrades to 407 miles worth of existing barriers. The administration also wants to spend a total of $33 billion on the border over the next decade — more than double the planned budget for securing America’s nuclear weapons and materials. Trump’s most indelible campaign promise was to make Mexico pay for the wall, but so far the Mexicans have agreed to contribute exactly nada to the project, which means U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the entire bill.

"When our people go to the polls, they will know who was with us and who was against us."

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, said Wednesday that Trump had “very definitely changed his attitude” about protecting Dreamers from deportation, and that even the president’s views about the wall had “evolved.” But almost immediately, Trump publicly contradicted Kelly, saying his concept of the wall “has never changed or evolved.”

Immigration activists like Erika Andiola, a DACA recipient who went on a hunger strike after she was arrested during a sit-in at the Capitol last month, have made it clear that any deal that trades Dreamer protections for wall funding or more draconian immigration enforcement is unacceptable. For years, she said, Democrats and moderate Republicans have treated immigrants like a political bargaining chip. Trump might be the catalyst that prompts action.

“They use support from us to win elections in place with majority-immigrant communities,” Andiola said. “But when it comes to doing something, it’s not something they're sticking their necks out for. They use it as leverage to get what they want. We’ve been saying over and over again: We don’t want anything that is going to push our families and our communities deeper into the shadows.”

Unintended consequences on the border

Trump maintains that the wall is necessary to stop drug smugglers and dangerous criminals from sneaking into the country, but data from his first year shows that most of the people arriving at the southwest border are Central Americans fleeing violence in their homeland. The administration has touted a 40 percent decline in apprehensions at the border from 2016 to 2017, but arrivals of unaccompanied children and families are actually on the rise. Requests for asylum by people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras increased 25 percent in the 2017 fiscal year compared to 2016, though fewer people were allowed to stay.

Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that Trump’s approach to the border is having unintended consequences. “Families that were approaching Border Patrol and asking for asylum are maybe now going to criminal groups,” she said. “All of these policies have fed into the hands of criminal organizations.”

At the same time, the Trump administration — led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — has gone after Central Americans already in the United States under the guise of cracking down on the street gang MS-13. Sessions was sued last year by the ACLU for allegedly rounding up undocumented teenagers and detaining them indefinitely with no proof of gang affiliation, and Trump recently cancelled Temporary Protected Status for more than 220,000 Salvadorans who have been living legally in the U.S. since a 2001 earthquake in the country. The administration also did away with the Central American Minors refugee program, which allowed young people under threat in countries like El Salvador to apply for the chance to legally come to the U.S. while still in their home country.

“All of these policies have fed into the hands of criminal organizations.”

Meyer said that by persecuting and moving to deport Salvadorans back to a country plagued by gang violence, Trump is playing into the hands of MS-13 — offering the gangs new targets for recruitment and extortion while cutting off a lifeline for families who rely on money sent from relatives in the U.S.

It really fails to take into consideration the impact it would have on curtailing future migration,” Meyer said. “If the idea is to stop people from coming, the one way to do that is keep the people who are here legally in the U.S. here and sending remittances to their families.”

Central Americans are hardly the only ones to suffer the fallout of Trump’s immigration crackdown. Immigration activists dubbed President Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief” because he kicked more people out of the U.S. than anyone in history, and while Trump hasn’t yet matched him in sheer numbers, the enforcement strategy has changed. Obama prioritized deporting serious criminals and people who had recently crossed the border, but Trump is going after everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

Deportations actually fell slightly during Trump’s first year, but arrests made away from the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement soared by 25 percent from 114,434 Obama’s last year in office to 143,470 in Trump’s first. In 2017, ICE agents detained a 10-year-old disabled girl, a woman hospitalized for a brain tumor, and a man who entered the country at age 9 and now has a U.S.-citizen wife and teenage daughters, to cite just a few of the more egregious cases.

ICE, Border Patrol, and Homeland Security detained nearly 487,000 people last year. Fewer than 5,000 were convicted of a crime by the Department of Justice. And of those, only 12 percent — a grand total of 576 cases — involved serious felonies such as murder, rape, and armed robbery, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The rest were convicted of immigration offenses.

With friends, neighbors, and workers starting to disappear following ICE raids, local newspapers have reported feelings of buyer’s remorse in some Trump-supporting communities. And immigrants themselves are terrified.

“It’s this constant fear,” says Andiola, who’s also the former press secretary for Bernie Sanders. “People in communities hear this on the news; they’re worried about their families and their own well-being. It’s this psychological war against the undocumented community. It’s reality, they can deport us at any time.”

How Trump cutting back on refugee admissions

Trump isn’t just targeting undocumented immigrants — his administration is also actively working to keep people from entering the U.S. legally, especially if they come from war-torn countries. Despite a historic need for safe haven with conflicts simmering across the Middle East and Africa, Trump allowed only 53,716 refugees into the country last year, the fewest in a decade and about half as many as the Obama administration had planned.

Trump has capped the maximum number of refugees the U.S. will accept this year at 50,000, the lowest limit since the modern refugee program was established, in 1980. Since then, the U.S. has resettled more people fleeing war and persecution than any other country, over 3 million in total. Not a single one has ever been linked to a fatal terror attack on American soil, undermining Trump’s national security justification for the cutback.

"It’s this psychological war against the undocumented community."

Trump’s on-again, off-again travel ban severely disrupted refugee resettlement, and after a string of losses in federal court, the administration finally settled on a new tactic: blocking refugees with bureaucracy. In October, Trump instituted a new version of “extreme vetting” that effectively prohibits refugees from 11 countries from entering the U.S. The new rules also halted a program that allows reunification of refugee families. Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president of public affairs at the refugee resettlement group HIAS, said refugees were already subject to an intense screening process, and the new red tape only exists as a backdoor way to stop people from coming.

“The administration has a lot of leeway to come up with new ways to slow down the program,” Nezer said. “That’s what we’ve seen most recently and what we fear we’ll be seeing in 2018: Adding new bureaucratic procedures that do nothing to enhance safety but slow down the program. It just keeps people out but doesn’t make us safer.”

Refugee families aren’t the only ones being split up. Trump officials have also started laying the groundwork to halt what they have dubbed “chain migration,” a term that describes parents, siblings, spouses, and children joining loved ones who have legal status in the United States.

Trump has also called for doing away with the diversity visa lottery, which awards 50,000 green cards per year to immigrants from underrepresented countries, mainly in Africa. Trump and Republicans say they want to set those spots aside for skilled workers, but the president’s idea of skilled apparently means being from Norway.

In his inaugural address, after vowing to stop “American carnage,” Trump said his goal was not to “impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” The problem now, Nezer said, is that other nations are already looking to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda as a way to justify their own xenophobia.

“It’s a really precarious moment for us as a country,” Nezer said. “Fortunately, I don’t think it’s too late to correct the course.”