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onald Trump’s aggressive, brash approach to immigration enforcement has sent shockwaves around the United States and beyond. His actions are unpredictable and dramatic, and leave those who support immigrants reacting and hastily responding, with a sense that the ground is shifting under our feet. In this short essay, I offer a few cautions as we make our way through this seeming chaos. First, we must remember that—while Trump’s approach to immigration enforcement is alarming, unapologetically violent, and intentionally visible—the policies he is pursuing are not new. In fact, the cornerstones of his immigration policies, deportation, and detention, have typically received bipartisan political support. I am reminded of this as I think back to 2009 when President Barack Obama was just taking office. At the time, I was conducting research in Ecuador with families of migrants detained in the United States and deportees after their forced return to Ecuador. Obama had campaigned on promises to enact immigration reform, and for a kinder, less reactionary approach to immigration than George W. Bush had carried out in the post-9/11 tumult. I remember wondering optimistically if my research on deportation and detention would become a postscript on a shameful, soon-to-be-over period in U.S. history. Instead, Obama went the other way, building a detention and deportation machine unparalleled in modern history, a system that detains 34,000 people per day, and deports over 400,000 per year. This is the machine that Trump inherited, and is aggressively working to expand. While, indeed, Trump is embracing detention and deportation with a new vigor and willingness to ignore pleas for compassion, it is important to keep in mind that his draconian and inhumane approach has been supported by all political stripes.
Second, we must think strategically—now—about how we can sustain the current level of pro-immigrant activism and interest beyond the Trump administration. Activists, fired up by Trump’s rhetoric and the flood of heart-wrenching stories in the media about consequences of Trumpian immigration enforcement, are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. For instance, Long Island, New York, where I have lived for five years, is a politically conservative area; yet even here, some local groups are newly declaring their support for immigrants. Middle class Long Island women are taking it upon themselves to photocopy ‘Know Your Rights’ information sheets and distribute them at well-known day laborer sights. There have been workshops at local churches about how to form a ‘rapid response network’ to shield undocumented immigrants who are being targeted by ICE.
When I see all of these activities taking place, I am buoyed by this energy and concern. At the same time, however, so much of this—the family separation, detention, forced removal, disregard for the rights of immigrants and their families, companies and counties making money from detaining immigrants—has been going on for years now. Why is it only now stirring up a response? Why weren’t people fired up when Obama was President? Is it tied to a Republican being in office? To the disgust at so many of Trump’s other proposals and comments? We need to think carefully about how can we sustain this response, this new indignation, this new desire to defend immigrants, beyond the Trump administration, beyond a Republican administration, beyond when open racism once again falls out of fashion. We need to figure out how to seize this new energy, awareness, and activism, to carry it on, to fight beyond this particular political moment, when detention and deportation and all the painful and unjust consequences they bring fade from the spotlight.
A third caution: while there is so much happening all around us in the United States with changing immigration enforcement and the panic created by it, we must remember to look outside US borders. We must ask: what are U.S. immigration policies doing elsewhere? The Trump administration has been touting a drop in immigrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border as proof that their tough approach and draconian policies are working to deter immigrants. And perhaps they are. But we have to remind the public to ask: what happens when desperate migrants lose the United States as an option? Many immigrants from Central America, in particular, are fleeing violence, extreme poverty, and likely death for them and/or their children. There are a number of journalistic accounts that have traced deportees back to El Salvador, to Honduras, to Guatemala, to find that many are killed. And kids trying to escape are pulled into gangs.
And we must also ask: where else will migrants go, if not the United States? There are recent news reports of asylum claims being made in Mexico jumping dramatically, as more and more US-bound migrants decide Mexico is their best shot. How will these changes affect Mexico, or other neighboring countries? Will they cause instability in Mexico, that will then reverberate to the United States? We also must be attentive to US deterrence policies that externalize US border and immigration policing to Mexican and Central American police and military. For example, the numbers of migrants that Mexico detains and deports are quickly approaching US levels, and while U.S. detention and deportation practices are rife with problems and abuses, there are even fewer safeguards in place in Mexico. So in ‘deterring’ migrants from getting to the United States, what abuses are we funding south of our border?
A fourth and final caution: We must remember to think carefully about what we are fighting for, and be vigilant about what we are willing to accept. I came to this realization reflecting on one of my own reactions. In early March, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that he was considering a proposal to separate immigrant parents and children at the US-Mexico border in order to deter other families from trying to come to the United States. Many pro-immigrant groups and human rights organizations decried this idea, as well as many academics—including myself; I wrote a passionate op-ed piece in the Huffington Post. A few weeks later, Kelly announced that he had decided not to start separating parents and kids at the border, and I felt tremendously relieved. But fellow geographer Lauren Martin, who has studied family detention extensively, made a comment to me that was an ‘ah-ha’ moment: she said, “I think that the proposal was designed to make us ask for family detention.” I think she is right. After Kelly’s reversal, I thought, “Phew, they are not going to separate moms and kids.” And I was less appalled than I would have been before the proposal by the additional announcement that the DHS is instead going to push for 20,000 new family detention beds—a sixfold increase over current capacity. The initial over-the-top proposal distracted me from being outraged at the seemingly less crazy alternative, changes that in effect will institutionalize and normalize a massive expansion in family detention.
So many of Trump’s ideas are outrageous. Some are being enacted. But when others are not enacted, or the less extreme versions are adopted, it is too easy to breathe a sigh of relief and ease up. We cannot ease up. Despite and because of the chaos, we must remain attentive to our moral compass. We cannot tie our commitment to immigrants’ rights to the political party in office. We cannot let short-term marches and protests take the place of a long-term commitment to advancing dignity and security for immigrants in the United States. We cannot let Trump’s nativist, ‘America First’ lens determine our own. We cannot treat the lesser of two of the Trump administration’s evils as if it were a win for immigrants. My message to concerned academics is the same as my message to my newly-activated neighbors on Long Island: thank you for your actions and energy now, but you will contribute to fundamental, enduring change only if you remain vigilant and committed for the long haul.