On immigration, Trump offers fear itself

Susana Terrones, 24, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as an infant, is among some 500,000 undocumented “dreamers” in California threatened by a Trump presidency.
Susana Terrones, 24, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as an infant, is among some 500,000 undocumented “dreamers” in California threatened by a Trump presidency. TNS

When President-elect Donald Trump vowed at times during his campaign to expel 11 million undocumented immigrants upon taking office, Americans wondered whether he was just opening a negotiation or seriously telling the foreign-born that they should be very afraid.

The answer appears to be some of both. In his post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump lowered his number, saying his administration would focus, at least initially, on “people that are criminal and have criminal records – gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million.”

“We are getting them out of the country,” he said, “or we are going to incarcerate.”

No one wants gang members and drug dealers to be out committing crimes, with or without papers. But beyond that, Team Trump has offered little to reassure this nation of immigrants.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who says he’s advising Trump on immigration, told Reuters the transition team was discussing an immigrant registry for Muslims, or as other team members quickly termed it, for visitors from countries with “high terrorism activity.” On Fox News, a spokesman for a pro-Trump PAC cited as “precedent” the shameful mass World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

Also under discussion, Kobach said, are ways to revoke the deportation relief issued to some 750,000 “dreamers” – young people, many of them in college and American in every way but documentation, who were brought into the United States as children and have been protected by the Obama administration.

Kobach’s suggestions are, to be blunt, repellent, and they have set off alarms, from college campuses to big city police departments. Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and a host of other California officials have vowed to resist any federal attempts to sacrifice civil rights in the name of immigration enforcement.

There is the fear, however, and then there’s the reality of what the coming Trump administration can practically do beyond what President Barack Obama has accomplished. The fact is, Trump is inheriting an already tough immigration strategy.

Obama has deported a record 2.7 million people, more than any president before him. In the last two years alone, he has tossed out about 500,000 dangerous criminals and repeat offenders.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, estimated in 2015 that of the 11 million or so immigrants here without authorization, only about 820,000 had criminal convictions – 750,000 if you only counted felons, people with serious misdemeanors and criminals with pending federal deportation orders.

In other words, there probably are not 3 million undocumented criminals left for Trump to deport.

But if Trump’s numbers are correct, there’s the cost of all that rounding up and deportation. Obama instructed field agents and supervisors to prioritize high-level criminals and revolving-door border crossers, but casting a wider – and more disruptive – net would require a dramatic ramp-up in immigration enforcement.

Hiring, training, drug testing and checking the backgrounds of thousands of new agents would take years and cost billions of dollars. Immigrants have due process rights, including the right to appeal, and billions more would be needed to unclog immigration courts, which are backlogged with hundreds of thousands of deportation cases.

It’s a nightmare for Republican budget hawks, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said after Trump’s remarks that Congress would not be “erecting a deportation force.”

Even on his “beautiful” wall, Trump may be overselling. Much of the California and Arizona border is already blocked – and riddled with tunnels. Rarely mentioned is that nearly half of undocumented people here entered legally and overstayed their visas, so for them, border blockades are beside the point.

Of course, even on the cheap, Trump and some of the extremists he has surrounded himself with could terrorize a lot of people. Transition advisers have said he might redefine “criminal” to include less-serious crimes, reinstate workplace raids, pressure municipal police and county jails to do immigration enforcement, and use incarceration as leverage to get people to give up their due process rights.

Kobach – who helped Kansas and Arizona pass some draconian immigration laws before the courts finally blocked them – told Reuters that he believes some immigrants charged with crimes could be deported even before they are convicted.

Trump also could resurrect messes such as Obama’s “Secure Communities” program, which was killed in 2014 after backfiring spectacularly on local law enforcement.

That program automatically notified federal immigration authorities when an undocumented immigrant was booked into a local jail and fingerprinted. Before long, parents were being deported for trespassing and running stop signs, and local policing became almost impossible as terrified, distrustful immigrants, with and without papers, ran for the shadows.

Perhaps most heart-wrenching is the possibility that Trump will go after the undocumented kids Obama has protected through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. They are among the bravest and best in their generation, but easy targets.

The government has their names and addresses, and Trump could run up his deportation numbers if he were to cancel the program. About 500,000 are in California, many of them honor students enrolled in the state university and community college systems, which have been urged by advocates and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare themselves “sanctuary” campuses.

That would be a mistake. The state’s higher education system relies heavily on research grants and other federal money, and such a designation would only draw attention and make it easier for Trump to exert pressure.

More effective would be state-funded legal aid for these students; though those facing deportation are not entitled to a lawyer under U.S. law, they typically do better if they have one. Newsom also has wisely urged that the federal government be blocked from accessing the students’ data.

Most effective of all, however, would be for Trump and his team to see that there is no simple solution, and to stop the fear-mongering. Hate crimes against immigrants since the election are off the charts, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Undocumented immigrants are not threatening this country. Their numbers dropped after the recession and haven’t rebounded.

If Trump were as smart as his partisans say, he’d tell self-proclaimed “advisers” like Kobach to stuff it and use his negotiating skill for something useful. He would be hailed as a genius if he could negotiate real, bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform.