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fter the first hundred days we have seen the Trump administration bumble through their anti-immigrant agenda with a mix of cruelty and incompetence. Overarching changes to the immigration system have been stalled or halted, but this by no means rules out the possibility of some major forthcoming changes to the treatment of immigrants living in the United States, undocumented or otherwise.
However, what we have seen is that many of the small, quiet changes that the Obama administration enacted in response to the growing outrage manifest in his ‘deporter-in-chief’ status and the inability of the legislature to pass any immigration reform. These include the high-profile executive actions such as DACA1 and DAPA2, but perhaps more significantly the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) in 2014 by Jeh Johnson, which were focused on specifically targeting high priority individuals convicted of more serious crimes. The Priority Enforcement Program was not without criticism, particularly because of its focus on preventing future immigration by ranking asylum seekers and other recent arrivals as priority number two, behind terrorists and ahead of people with serious felony convictions (Johnson, 2014). However, the PEP significantly decreased the number of people removed from the interior of the country, with a high of 322,093 removals in 2011, then decreasing to 117,983 in 2015 (DHS, 2016). Through executive orders issued during his first week in office, Trump removed the priority system entirely and is casting a wider net similar to the pre-2014 Obama administration.
In this way Trump’s immigration policies should not be interpreted as anything new. Rather, they are a return to previous approaches to immigration enforcement that were, at the time, referred to as the ‘low hanging fruit’ approach. Rather than apprehending people with outstanding removal orders, ICE has been taking everyone with questionable status into custody. This, combined with the resuscitation of the failed Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, has essentially returned us to the darkest days of the Obama administration. Yes, agents have been further emboldened by Trump’s tough talk and blue lives matter rhetoric, as well as his support of the fringe USBP union: the National Border Patrol Council. However, agents from the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have always acted with high levels of impunity (Heyman, 2004; Martínez, Slack, and Heyman, 2013; Heyman, 2001). This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that 97% of complaints against Border Patrol and CBP result in no action taken (Martínez, Cantor, and Ewing, 2014). To say that Trump’s racial rhetoric and nativism is solely responsible for the current rash of abuses is incomplete or simply incorrect.
However, we are entering into a new era of public interest in the border, immigration, and deportation. While there has been a general continuity between Obama and Trump in terms of the substance and style of enforcement, the newfound interest has a significant impact in changing the imaginary of enforcement for the majority of the population who previously had little to no understanding of the issue. The border has consistently cycled in and out of the public conscious, both as a signifier of nativist angst regarding whiteness, but also as a humanitarian cause celebré. There have been previous moments that attracted increased attention from activists and advocates (right- and left-leaning), journalists and politicians. Examples include the 2006 mass immigration reform marches, the 2013 proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform that passed the Senate, and in 2014 when Central American Asylum seekers began arriving in higher numbers (arguably the event that paved the way for Trump’s successful campaign built on racist fear of non-white immigration), among others.
The current wave of reporting has focused on particularly egregious raids and roundups around the country, as well as the removal of people from hospitals and court rooms (Gonzales, 2017; Sommerfeldt et al., 2017). However, having interviewed Mexican migrants post-deportation beginning in 2007 in a large n survey project (Martínez et al., 2017; Slack et al., 2015), this type of behavior has been common for years. However, the reporting on deportation has changed and this is a difficult impact to manage. The increased discussion of people being removed for minor infractions, or for simply interacting with any public official, has sent a palpable wave of fear through immigrant communities. Fear has long been associated with decreased mobility and led immigrants to avoid seeking out medical care, avoid reporting crimes, and even avoid sending children to school (Núñez and Heyman, 2007; Heyman, Núñez, and Talavera, 2009). But there is cause for hope. Will the increased attention and awareness of the brutality and injustice of immigration enforcement lead to more organization, and potentially reform, or will the fear simply paralyze the community?
Now is the time to call on academics, students, and advocates to work toward the former and against the later. This is a delicate matter that requires us to acknowledge the seriousness of the precarious reality in which millions of people are living, while simultaneously finding new and creative modes of resistance. We must create challenges through our work to a variety of creative avenues. This could mean creating data for use in the court system, either to challenge state practices or to support of asylum claims. Anyone with knowledge of a foreign country—such as its current levels of violence, or history of political, gendered, or ethnic violence—can make the difference between deportation and full legal status in the United States.3 Furthermore, scholars can challenge to the rhetoric surrounding immigrants in their own communities. In order to do this, we need to engage in something more profound than simply repudiating incorrect statements made by the administration. This happens too often in the “actually-immigrants-don’t commit-as-many-crimes-as-the-native-born” apologizing that legitimizes penalties and removals for immigrants with criminal records. For the millions who have spent decades here, raised their children, worked and lived in our communities, this is their home and regardless of their status, they deserve to be here.
For scholars whose research and expertise lies elsewhere, there are myriad ways to make an impact in the classroom and the communities where you live and work: Invite advocates to classes, either in person or through video conferencing; assign readings on immigration; correct bigoted language, such as the common usage of “illegal” as a noun; help facilitate internships or community-based projects that connect the university to the community in new ways. This last suggestion should not be taken lightly, as student workers can quickly destroy your reputation and the reputation of the university as a whole if not properly supervised (Austin, 2004). To avoid this, make sure that you are responsible for student work, supervise students closely, and, of course, create an incentive structure (grades, recommendations, money etc.). And lastly, listen and be open to your students. Many more people are impacted by our broken and punitive immigration system than we realize, and chances are they are in your classrooms, as well. They may not appear foreign, or Latino/a or working class—but they are there. Not all of them will want to talk, but being available and providing opportunities for students to get engaged with research or advocacy can profoundly transform people from the victims of the Trump administration’s hateful rhetoric into those that will tear it down.
1 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), created in 2012, is a program that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States under the age of 16, were under 31 at the time it was announced and had no criminal record among other things, to apply for temporary relief from deportation. The Trump administration has given conflicting messages about the future of this program.
2 DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) was a program proposed by President Obama in 2014 to allow undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children to apply for temporary relief from deportation. The program was immediately challenged in court by Republican state leaders and at the time of writing, is awaiting a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court after a four-four-split decision that upheld the lower court’s decision to block the program.
3 See Campbell et. al, 2017 for a discussion of how to make our academics frameworks fit in the courtroom, or Slack, 2015 for an example of research that has been extreme useful for winning asylum cases.