Commentary: Pushing back against Trump’s immigration policies

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement SWAT officers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement SWAT officers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
By Barbara Franz

Even with new dehumanizing policies — the separation of families, rising rejection of asylum seekers at the borders, and widespread arrests — the number of people deported under President Trump is much lower than it was during the peak enforcement years.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an independent nonpartisan think tank, studied this phenomenon and found that there were more than 300,000 arrests annually in fiscal years 2010 and 2011—about twice the 2017 numbers.

Deportations from fiscal years 2008-11 also were twice the 2017 level—more than 200,000 annually. In fiscal 2017, “only” 61,094 people were deported.

How come?

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

Striving to answer this question, the MPI undertook a year-long study, visiting seven of the 24 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) field offices and 15 local jurisdictions in seven states (California, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, New York).

The venues spanned from those fully cooperating with ICE to others that are limiting their involvement. MPI researchers interviewed 120 officials, ranging from ICE field officers and local police officers to state and local governmental authorities and consular officials, as well as providers of legal and other services to immigrants, advocates, and former immigration judges.

The broad picture that emerges from the report is twofold: On the one hand, this administration has begun to enforce the most aggressive and inhumane immigration regulations in the history of the republic, or at least since the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans in detention camps starting in 1942.

Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, depicts the current climate triggered by these new policies in the following way: “If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder.”

On the other hand, the call for aggressive enforcement has been opposed by some states, and has begun to generate regional and local resistance.

For example, in 2017, California passed legislation restricting police cooperation with ICE, and Illinois adopted legislation placing statewide limits on cooperation. Indeed, various aspects of the administration’s racist, dehumanizing policy has mobilized local community support for undocumented and documented immigrants.

It seems that local advocacy groups, such as the immigrant resource center Wind of the Spirit in Morristown, were quintessential for passing local ordinances and policies resisting the administration’s aggressive sweep.

For example, the “Fair and Welcoming” resolutions in Dover and Plainfield, NJ, define themselves as welcoming all human beings in their communities. Wind of the Spirit also has been crucial for spreading the notion that communities and small towns, like Morristown and Madison, should provide their residents with municipal IDs.

The center provides services for migrants, for example, work safety training and workshops that focus on how to pay for college. The agency also organizes educational events for the entire community, such as speeches; for example, a couple of weeks ago, the award-winning journalist Karla Rivas spoke about the human rights situation and violence in Honduras.

Recently, the center also organized an event that focused on detention and family separation at the U.S. borders.

As many as 300 jurisdictions have “sanctuary” policies that either limit cooperation or symbolically oppose ICE cooperation, and about 200 of these do not honor ICE detainers.

In New Jersey they are Middlesex, Ocean, and Union counties, and Newark. Sanctuary jurisdictions restrict cooperation by not: (1) holding people for extra time on ICE detainers; (2) notifying ICE when someone is released; or (3) permitting ICE screening of those arrested for immigration status.

Recent technological advances not only aid ICE and other enforcement agencies but also the undocumented communities. For example, United We Dream, a national immigrants rights advocacy group, launched a mobile app, Notifica, that generates alerts about immigration enforcement.

The most prominent sanctuary case is perhaps California, where the largest three cities (Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and San Diego county) and the state itself have declared themselves to be sanctuary locations.

The national share of ICE arrests made by California’s ICE field offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego dropped from 23 percent in Fiscal 2013 to 14 percent in fiscal 2017.

The number of arrests in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices decreased by about two-thirds over this period, and by 37 percent in San Diego. According to the MPI report, arrests rose only by 9 percent in each of the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices from fiscal 2016 to 2017, as compared to a national increase of 30 percent.

In local communities and cities, legal service providers that had focused on DACA, naturalization, and other benefits applications during the Obama administration shifted their attention to know-your-rights trainings, deport defense, and litigation challenges to the administration.

For example, New York City increased its funding for low-income immigrants who are in deportation proceedings to $26 million in 2017.

ICE officers reported significantly reduced community cooperation in their work. Of course the administration’s aggressive detention and deportation policies have affected local businesses, public safety, and the use of education, health and social services for which immigrants are eligible in various communities.

Because any unauthorized immigrant or removable legal immigrant encountered by ICE can now be arrested, the character and unpredictability of ICE enforcement have generated an overarching climate of fear, which is itself serving as an enforcement tool.

In response to these developments, the MPI study cites thickening networks of community-based actors who are responding, and successfully providing legal services, know-your-rights counsel, monitoring, rapid-response assistance, and political advocacy in opposition to ICE enforcement.

To be sure, one consequence of these federal policies is in many states and local communities, the growing reach and local impact of agencies like Wind of the Spirit, American Friends and Service Committee, and the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc.

Let’s keep it that way. Let’s continue to support our local community groups, especially those who work with migrants and other cohorts who need our support the most.

Of course, the 2018 midterm elections provide an opportunity for a broader pushback.


Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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