On Wednesday, Donald Trump showed us, again, who he really is.
Addressing a smattering of California officials who oppose the state's sanctuary policies that help protect some undocumented people from deportation, the president of the United States said:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level, at a rate that’s never happened before. Because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get 'em, we release 'em, we get 'em again, we bring 'em out. It's crazy. The dumbest laws, as I said before, the dumbest laws on immigration in the world. So we're gonna take care of it.
The excuse for Donald Trump's ugly remark from conservatives was that he wasn't calling all undocumented immigrants "animals"—he was responding to someone else's point about the gang MS-13 and therefore only meant to refer to those criminals as subhuman. This is a very charitable reading. As is his habit, Trump was rambling on vaguely about disconnected topics and it's unclear who exactly he was talking about. But if we're being careful about context, we should note that the Trump administration has exaggerated the threat posed by MS-13 and the number of gang members who've been deported. We should also note that Trump has called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and reportedly dubbed African countries "shitholes." And we should look at what his administration is actually doing on immigration, and what the stated rationale for it is.
Trump's statements about immigrants have always reeked of prejudice. He's talked about people "pouring through" the southern border and has mobilized the National Guard to combat nonexistent waves of migrants. And this sort of rhetoric permeates his administration. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, an immigration hardliner who treads more carefully than his boss, said in a recent interview with NPR that though "some" undocumented immigrants weren't MS-13, "They're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from—fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm."
Fears about masses of uneducated foreigners flooding into the US are practically as old as America. But it has been a long time since the country's leadership was so openly hostile to immigration. Trump's animus toward newcomers—which is reflected in the Republican Party over which now he has total control—has had real consequences, and may be the defining feature of his early presidency.
Barack Obama presided over countless raids and a record number of deportations. But his administration attempted to prioritize undocumented people who had committed serious crimes, and in his second term he signed executive orders that exempted many who lacked legal status from being kicked out of the country—though the courts struck one of those orders down.
Under Trump, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been targeting virtually all undocumented immigrants, a shift in policy that has led to a spike in deportation arrests. Even those married to US citizens have been detained. Other immigrants who were previously allowed to stay in the country under ICE supervision have been chased into churches to avoid deportation. Workplace raids have rounded up immigrants by the dozens. In places where raids are common, children are staying home from school out of fear and undocumented immigrants who need medical care are afraid of going to the doctor.
ICE agents have conducted warrantless raids advocates and politicians denounced as unconstitutional. In March, a couple fleeing ICE officers died after their SUV flipped over. A teenager who was a member of MS-13 offered up evidence against the gang—and was detained by ICE for his trouble. The courts are clogged with so many asylum cases that some people are at risk of being sent back to their home countries, where they could face death. In some cases, deported immigrants have actually been killed. At the southern border, the government is detaining families seeking asylum and splitting them up in an effort to deter people from crossing to the US. And if you believe that all this is merely about "law and order," the administration has also sought to restrict legal immigration, drastically cut refugee admissions (especially Muslims), and considered blocking legal immigrants from using public benefits.
This is what hostility to immigrants looks like. It means terrified families. It means law enforcement stopping buses to ask for everyone's papers. It means the detention or deportation not just of the hardened criminals constantly invoked by Republicans, but of small businesspeople and even one California pastor who supported Trump. They have assimilated by any measure, and they're still being targeted.
Trump's efforts have in fact decreased illegal border crossings from Mexico (though not as much as he usually claims). But the number of undocumented immigrants in America has been unchanged for years. These roughly 11 million people—66 percent of whom had lived in the US for more than a decade as of 2014, according to Pew—present a policy challenge. Many of them have established lives, married citizens, had children who are citizens. Some were brought to the US as kids themselves and have little ties to the countries they could be deported to.
Over and over, lawmakers have attempted to sort out what is obviously a broken immigration system. George W. Bush pushed a reform package that would have created a guest worker program, increased border security, switched the US to a more merit-based immigration process, and given millions of people legal status. It failed spectacularly, opposed mostly by Republicans who cried amnesty , along with some Democrats. Afterward, Senator Ted Kennedy, who helped write the bill, said of its opponents, "What are they going to do with the 12 million who are undocumented here? Send them back to countries around the world? Develop a type of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows? What’s their alternative?”
The US got close to reform again in 2013 with a bipartisan Senate bill that contained the same basic trade-off—legal status for some undocumented immigrants in exchange for enhanced border security—but conservative Republicans in the House killed it.
The refusal of lawmakers to act led Obama to unilaterally protect Dreamers (immigrants brought illegally to the US as children) with the policy known as DACA—which Trump, naturally, has tried to revoke. Some plaintiffs have (so far successfully) sued to stop Trump from ending DACA, while some red states have sued to wipe it out. As the executive and judicial branches effectively write immigration policy at the federal level, individual cities and states have adopted "sanctuary" policies that discourage local law enforcement from handing undocumented immigrants over to ICE for minor infractions—a strategy that some cops say helps them because immigrant communities are less afraid to report crimes to the police. (The Trump administration has attempted to ban sanctuary cities, and is taking California to court over its sanctuary status.)
This mess could be addressed by Congress, but the legislative branch has sidelined itself. In February, after an intense debate, the Senate voted on four immigration bills that represented various approaches to reform, and all of them failed. In the absence of any legislation that would clarify who should be deported and who should be allowed to stay, Trump has been free to pursue the simplest and most aggressive policy possible. This is the future Kennedy hinted at: mass deportation of as many undocumented immigrants as US agents can round up.
Cruelty of this sort—detaining people, deporting them, breaking up families—may be defended by some Americans on legal or economic grounds. But Trump's defense of these tactics is simpler, as his comments Wednesday made clear: He wants these people gone because he thinks of them as scum. It seems simplistic to call America's immigration policies flat-out racist, but Trump isn't giving us much of a choice.
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