Ever since he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and swore to build his ‘great wall’ and stop Mexican ‘rapists’ from entering the country, undocumented immigrants have been the focus of Donald Trump’s ire. Now that he’s in the Oval Office, the news has been grim. A drumbeat of frightening headlines and panicked social media posts have highlighted his incendiary language, his plans and executive orders when it comes to immigrants, and the early acts of the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when it comes to round-ups and deportations. The temperature has soared on the deportation debate, so if you think we’re in a completely unprecedented moment when it comes to immigration and immigrants, you’re in good company.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are flooding the United States, causing crime waves, and depleting social service budgets. Never mind that the number of such immigrants has been in steady decline since 2008, that immigrant crime rates are lower than citizen crime rates, that the undocumented have no access to most social welfare programs, and that crime figures, too, have generally been on the decline in recent years.
The media has played its own role in fanning the flames. Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, news reports have proliferated about rising raids, arrests, detentions, and deportations. These suggest that something new, terrifying, and distinctly Trumpian – something we’ve simply never seen before – is underway, including mass sweeps to deport individuals who would have been protected under the previous administration.
The numbers tell a different story. A Washington Post scare headline typically read: ‘ICE Immigration Arrests of Noncriminals Double Under Trump’. While accurate, it was nonetheless misleading. Non-criminal immigration arrests did indeed jump from 2,500 in the first three months of 2016 to 5,500 during the same period in 2017, while criminal arrests also rose, bringing the total to 21,000. Only 16,000 were arrested during the same months in 2016.
And even though arrests went up during Trump’s first three months in office, deportations actually went down, mostly due to the fact that the number of immigrants crossing the border declined.
To those who have been following deportation politics in this country, Trump’s policies, as they are now unfolding, have an eerie resonance. They seem to be growing directly out of policies first instituted in the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. True, President Obama liked to talk about ‘our tradition of welcoming immigrants’, while our new president has tossed such liberal humanitarian rhetoric in the garbage can, instead playing up a harsh nativism. Still, the fact is that two Democratic presidents laid the groundwork for Trump’s developing policies.
It was, after all, President Clinton who oversaw the draconian “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act” of 1996. It drastically increased all levels of immigration ‘enforcement’, expanding the Border Patrol, criminalizing numerous types of low-level immigration violations, and facilitating and expanding deportation procedures.
In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama’s approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist tough-on-crime and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Making Sense of the