If there’s one issue on which the Trump administration has actually succeeded in ramming through some policy changes, it’s immigration. Though hard to track all the moves the administration has made, especially with the slew of legal challenges, protests, and even corporate boycott against their policies, the fact remains that the landscape of immigration enforcement has changed since Trump took office. And if the rest of the administration’s anti-immigrant wish list is checked off, the changes to how this country receives, treats, and refuses migrants will result in a notable worsening of an already hard-line approach.
Though not easy to find coherency amid the onslaught, the administration’s immigration stance was perhaps best summed up by Trump himself last January, while discussing a possible end to protected status for over 300,000 people: “Why are we having all of these people from shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway.” By “shithole countries” the president was referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa, though the administration doesn’t offer immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, Mexico, or other Central American countries—whether rhetorically or policy-wise—much more dignity.
The administration has implemented, or tried to implement, a host of major immigration policy changes since taking office 18 months ago, including sharply limiting the number of refugees to the lowest levels since modern refugee laws were instituted, banning refugees from eight Muslim-majority countries, promising to build a wall along the southern border, promising to hire more Border Patrol agents, sending the National Guard to the border, raising the bar for asylum eligibility, rescinding protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence, expanding immigration detention, expanding interior immigration enforcement, canceling the DACA program, canceling Temporary Protective Status, denying green cards to people who have used public benefits, forcing immigration judges to rush cases, separating thousands of children from their parents, transferring children in the middle of the night to a “tent city” in Texas, and attempting to detain child migrants indefinitely. Of course, many past administrations have implemented some or variations of many of these policies, but no other administration in generations has so pointedly tried to hound, round up, deport—and generally make life miserable for—migrants.
The administration is “creating an environment of profound hostility,” as Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director for the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), told me. (Archila was one of the women who passionately confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator last week during the Senate hearing on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, shortly before the senator urged an FBI investigation into the sexual-assault allegations.) Together with Make the Road New York (MRNY), CPD published an alarming data brief estimating that if the administration were able to effectively implement its “zero-tolerance” policy—its attempt to prosecute all people who cross the border outside of a port of entry—the number of migrants in private detention centers would rocket from between 290 to 580 percent in the next two years. Currently, the number of migrants detained on any given day—spurred in large part by the momentum from a 2009 congressionally mandated bed quota—is around 45,000 people. If “zero tolerance” is ever actually fully implemented, that number could reach, according to MRNY and CPD’s calculations, almost 300,000 detained migrants a day.
And it’s not just adult migrants that the administration wants to lock up in cages. The plans for “zero tolerance” were stymied this summer by livid international outcry against family separations. But after Trump signed the executive order to limit further family separations, the administration—griping that the Flores Agreement, which blocks the government from holding children in detention centers for more than 20 days, was getting in the way of their plans—sought a workaround. It proposed new regulations that would rip gaping loopholes into Flores, effectively allowing the indefinite detention of children during periods of “emergency or influx,” terms it defines loosely enough that they can apply pretty much always. Becky Wolozin, an attorney with the Immigration Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, told me the change in policy would result in the “mass incarceration of child immigrants…and a generation of kids who are going to suffer.”
Taken together, the proposed and implemented administrative changes, Wolozin says, are “all part of…turning immigration court into a detention machine and speeding that machine up.” New guidelines encouraging judges not to issue continuances—a procedural delay if the respondent or a witness is ill, for example, or needs time to gather evidence—or making it harder to administratively close a case, are, Wolozin said, “ratcheting up the machine deporting brown-skinned immigrants.”
The “fever dream” of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement plans, as Benjamin Wolcott, of Make the Road Action, told me, is terrifying. And yet, some corporations see in the nightmare a bright future, and stand to make huge profits. Though it would take a while to build toward the capacity of locking up so many migrants, between the announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy and DHS’s June 22 request for information about the possibility of detaining an additional 15,000 people in family jails, the stocks of Geo Group and CoreCivic, the two largest for-profit immigration-detention corporations, increased 5.9 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. According to an NPR report, ICE forks over approximately $2 billion a year to for-profit companies to detain migrants in these dirty and deadly detention centers—in which, among other indignities and dangers, migrants suffer medical neglect and are forced to work for practically nothing to clean and maintain the facilities.
The lenders and financiers bankrolling much of the for-profit detention expansion also stand to profit enormously. JPMorgan Chase, one of the largest lenders to private detention, saw the value in its stock holdings jump from $182 thousand to over $11 million for Core Civic, and $150 thousand to almost $45 million for Geo Group, from September of 2016 until the end of 2017. Despite JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s public stance against the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, the company’s number of stock holdings in Geo Group increased by 179 times in the same time period. Their money, very clearly, is not where their mouth is.
Building the Wall
Outside of DC and the immigration courts, the administration desperately wants to erect a piece of its long-promised and much-maligned “wall.” After flatulent fanfare during the unveiling of the eight prototypes last spring, it turns out that Mexico isn’t the only country that doesn’t want to pay for the thing: Congress is also hesitant to cut a check—though over a billion dollars, at least, seem destined for the project in the next fiscal year. Completing a series of fences and barriers currently in place (there’s already almost 700 miles of standing walls, fences, and barriers) would cost anywhere between $12 billion and $70 billion dollars. Meanwhile, the effectiveness, or maybe just the point of such an inhumane boondoggle, is also dubious: Besides its certain environmental damage, most illegal drugs come into the country through ports of entry, and the wall prototypes were all found to be almost impossibly hard to build. Due to security concerns, tests of breachability and scalability were not released to the public, but as Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, put it simply: “Walls don’t work.” Indeed, empire-guarding walls have proven to be ineffective throughout human history—monuments to fear more than practical political tools. “It’s a medieval solution to a nonexistent problem,” Gaubeca said.
With more technology, more sections of wall, and a plan to add an extra 5,000 Border Patrol agents, more migrants crossing the border probably would be apprehended—though the net migration rate between Mexico and the United States in recent years has hovered near or below zero—but more migrants would as a result also be pushed ever further into the remote desert regions that make up much of the border, or risk a sea journey, putting their lives in greater danger. This would increase a trend we’ve been seeing for decades: Despite the sharp drop in the total number of estimated border crossings in recent years, the number of deaths along the US-Mexico border has increased. In other words: The percentage of migrants dying has gone up.
But it’s the detention and family separation policies that have been most effectively harmful over the past 18 months. It may be years before we are able to assess the repercussions of the family-separation crisis—surely to be remembered in history, along with Operation Wetback, as a moment of national disgrace—and the crisis is not over. The New York Times reported last week that hundreds of migrant children had been roused in the middle of the night in foster homes and shelters and sent to “a barren tent city on a sprawling patch of desert in West Texas.” Currently, the government is holding a record 13,000 child migrants in its custody. The children are being held for longer periods and, as of recently, ICE has even started targeting and arresting the adults who have come forward to sponsor the children.
“Trump is talking about building detention camps on military bases,” Archila told me. “This is not a soft-pedaling of policy.… I’ve been organizing for 20 years, and I never thought we would be here.” She added that the system has always been cruel to some, but the level of targeted persecution is higher today, which is “forcing us to confront many truths about this country.”
Archila described the whole agenda as “expanding the criminalization apparatus targeting brown and black immigrants.” The through-line, across all the disparate policy changes and proposals, is a “white-nationalist agenda and a shameless corporate-profit motive.”
In a recent decision, federal judge Edward Chen acknowledged the race-motivated factor in Trump’s immigration-enforcement policies. In a challenge to the revocation of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, the program allowing people to live and work in the United States after their countries have suffered a natural disaster, the judge noted that Trump had been discussing ending the program during a White House meeting when he made the infamous “shithole” comment. A 2017 memo from Elaine Duke, then secretary of homeland security, also claimed that the revocation of TPS was “a result of an America First view”—a phrase first made popular by anti-Semites and white supremacists, including Charles Lindbergh, during World War II.
What could this all look like after another two—or perhaps six—years of more Trump? Could there be a quarter-million more people locked into immigration-detention cages? Might we have a hideous new 2,000-mile long monument to hate along our southern border? Might ICE permanently stake out courthouses, schools, and churches? Might immigration court turn into a solid wall against which asylum claims merely ricochet? Might our tax dollars continue to fund government child snatchers?
The racist anti-immigrant vision “is too horrible too look at,” Archila told me. “But we have to look.”