Last month, when Donald Trump was considered a long shot to win the election, he released a “groundbreaking contract” that outlined his plan for the first 100 days of his presidency. On his first day in office, he vowed, he would “begin removing the more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country.”
Now, among both the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America and their advocates, there’s a sense of dread that President-elect Trump will do everything in his soon-to-be considerable power to keep his word and carry out mass deportations.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said people began contacting her organization almost immediately after the election results were announced Tuesday night. expressing “fear, frustration, and hopelessness.” And the calls haven’t stopped.
“There’s no reason to believe he isn’t going to follow through, but he’s talked about a lot of things, and who knows what he’s actually capable of,” Hincapié said. “Once he talks to attorneys and advisers, he’ll realize a lot of what he’s been talking about has already been struck down by federal courts.”
One the biggest concerns is the future of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented people who were brought to the country as children to work legally and be shielded from deportation. Obama created the program by issuing an executive order, which lacks the permanency of a law passed by Congress. Trump could wipe it away the first day of his presidency — along with every other executive action implemented by Obama — which he has pledged to do.
People who applied for DACA had to provide the government with detailed information about themselves and their families, and Hincapié said those people now worry that immigration authorities could use it to round them up and deport them.
“It’s a very real fear that people have about whether any of that info will be used against them,” Hincapié said. “They may not just lose their status but also be put into deportation proceedings.”
Questions have already been raised about the viability of some of Trump’s more extreme immigration proposals. In September, the New Yorker published an in-depth look at what Trump could realistically accomplish during his first term in office. While there was no disputing the fact that he will have the legal authority to suspend the Syrian refugee program, another campaign pledge, his deportation plan was projected to cost a whopping $600 billion and require a force of more than 90,000 “apprehension personnel.”
Julie Myers Wood, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President George W. Bush, told the magazine that she could “think of some very outside-the-box options” that would allow Trump to cut costs and deport millions of people relatively quickly. He could, for instance, order the IRS to provide immigration agents with tax information about undocumented people to help track them down, or invoke a provision under the Immigration and Nationality Act that would allow him to “detail thousands of local and state agents and police officers to the deportation effort.”
Myers Wood suggested — but stopped short of recommending — that people could be loaded en masse onto a train or even a “cruise ship” to make it cheaper to send them home. Stocks for private prison companies, which contract with the federal government to house undocumented immigrants prior to their deportation, surged on Wednesday on the expectation that business would boom during a Trump administration.
Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder and CEO of Define American and an undocumented immigrant himself, refuses to believe that mass deportations are within the realm of possibility.
“Deporting us would be a humanitarian crisis unlike anything this country or the world has ever seen,” he said. “Our history will not let this happen.”
Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist turned immigrant-rights activist, outed himself as undocumented in 2011 in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He now receives constant reminders from anti-immigrant trolls on social media that he could be deported on any given day. After the election results were announced on Tuesday night, he was bombarded with messages from Trump supporters saying his days in America are numbered.
“Please know that we are not going anywhere,” he wrote in a response on Facebook. “I am not going anywhere. We are resilient people.”
Vargas said the success of pro-immigration groups in the Trump era will hinge on “preaching beyond the choir” and broadening support for their cause.
“The question now is what does allyship really look like?” Vargas asked. “The people who employ us secretly — because you know they employ us — the people we go to church with, shop at the same grocery store with, now what are you going to do? How are you going to stand up for us? That’s the big question.”
But with Trump in the White House, softening the tone of the immigration debate and pushing for moderation won’t be easy. Deporting millions of people is just one of many anti-immigrant proposals on his first-term agenda. He also wants to build a massive wall along the US-Mexico border, and has vowed to “cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities,” the term for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and more than two dozen other places where local police can’t arrest someone solely for being undocumented.
Julissa Arce, a former undocumented immigrant from Mexico who grew up in the US and worked as a banker at Goldman Sachs before turning to activism, said counteracting Trump’s policies at the state and local level could be the most effective approach going forward. She also noted that the federal bureaucracy could work against Trump.
“All of this is going to take a lot of time,” she said. “People who voted for Trump think on day one he’s going to flip a switch and all the undocumented people are going to be gone. That’s not going to happen.”
Like Vargas, Arce, who gained U.S. citizenship in 2014 and voted for president for the first time in the 2016 election, was defiant about what the future holds for undocumented people.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We’re not going to Canada, we’re not going back where we came from. We’re going to stay right here.”