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The Trump Deportation Numbers Obscure a Deportation Strategy that is “Cruel and Arbitrary”

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Trump Administration Aims to Drive Millions of Settled Immigrants Out of the Country

Yesterday, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a centrist on immigration, called the Trump Administration’s approach to immigration enforcement “cruel and arbitrary.” Meanwhile, numerous press reports are focusing on the fact that the overall numbers of deportations under President Trump have declined compared to the first six months of 2016.

How do we square these two? Let’s start with some factual analysis from reporters who cover this beat, followed by our take.

Dara Lind at Vox has a good explainer here:

The (relatively) slow pace of deportations since Trump came into office is partly because of something Trump’s been bragging about: the decline in people crossing into the US from Mexico without papers. And it’s partly because the deportation system simply isn’t built for speedy deportations of people who’ve lived in the US for years. In fact, it’s backlogged to the point of near-paralysis.

…The Trump administration has definitely gotten more aggressive in putting people into the deportation system. That hasn’t immediately resulted — because it couldn’t — in getting people out of the country. They’re blowing a little statistical smoke to obscure the latter, but the former shouldn’t be overlooked either.

…So the decrease in deportations, compared to Obama levels, is explained by border crossing decline. But that decrease is happening despite stepped-up enforcement against unauthorized immigrants living in the US — and that’s because of the backlog in immigration court.

In the Washington Post, Maria Sacchetti writes:

John Sandweg, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said part of the reason for the decline is that illegal border crossings have plunged since Trump took office pledging to build a ‘big, beautiful’ wall and crack down on illegal immigration. Immigrants caught at the border accounted for a significant share of deportations under the Obama administration.

Another factor, however, is that immigration officials are arresting more people who never committed any crime — some 4,100 immigrants in June, more than double the number in January — clogging the already backlogged immigration courts and making it harder to focus on criminals.

And Tal Kopan of CNN explains:

The data confirms that the Trump administration has taken a much more aggressive tack toward arresting undocumented immigrants, regardless of whether they have committed offenses besides being in the country illegally, which is a civil, not criminal, violation. While the President has vowed to vastly step up deportations of people in the country illegally, the numbers have yet to live up to his pledge. Deportations, however, can be difficult as a measure because cases can take years to work their way through the immigration courts.

Here is our take, as expressed by Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice Education Fund:

Focusing on the number of deportations alone does not begin to tell the story of this Administration’s radicalism and trajectory. Here’s what we’ve seen over the past six months:

  • The evisceration of any priorities in enforcement, leaving all 11 million undocumented immigrants exposed to deportation;
  • The elimination of prosecutorial discretion in all but a handful of cases, meaning that those with strong equities and deep ties are being deported without any sort of balancing test being applied, as had been the practice in the last two Administrations;
  • Loud raids followed by press releases listing a few criminal offenses, and “silent raids” at ICE Offices in which people who have received prosecutorial discretion in the past because of their equities are swept up and quickly deported away from homes, families and jobs;
  • DHS press releases following raids that trumpet those picked up with criminal convictions, and bury the fact that many or most of those arrested are “collaterals” – meaning they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time;
  • A concerted campaign from the Attorney General to intimidate and bully local jurisdictions into colluding with deportation agents, despite opposition from local law enforcement who know that when cops appear to be an extension of the federal deportation machinery, immigrants fear that reporting crimes and serving as witnesses might lead to their families being ripped apart by deportation;
  • A push for dramatically increased DHS funding, not only for a needless and costly border wall, but for a rapid expansion of deportation agents, detention centers, and detention beds — all at a time when border crossings continue to decline;
  • Strategies designed to keep Central American asylum-seekers from seeking safety in America, from threatening to take minor children away from mothers, to denying new arrivals the chance to apply for asylum, to home raids targeting Central American young people and the family members who took them in;
  • Threatening over 300,000 beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), from Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and more, with the revocation of deportation relief and work permits, exposing them to deportation;
  • Threatening nearly 800,000 Dreamers who have benefited from DACA with the revocation of deportation relief and work permits, exposing them to deportation;

When you add this up, what we have is an unprecedented, radical and aggressive push to drive millions of settled immigrants out of America. The strategy is not necessarily to pick up and formally deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, but rather to pick up and deport people in a randomized fashion in order to terrorize all 11 million undocumented immigrants. The goal is to scare millions out of the country they now call home. Statistical analyses do not get at this reality. We are experiencing a slowly-unfolding tragedy of historic proportions. The Trump Administration is going for broke, and it is up to those of us who believe in the American tradition of welcoming newcomers to stand up to it and, over time, reverse it. If not, the values we hold dear, a tradition we hold up, and people we hold close will be trampled.