The Department of Homeland Security just quietly threw a wrench in the Republican presidential candidate’s immigration aspirations.
By Jared Keller
(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
In his long-awaited speech on immigration delivered in Arizona on Wednesday night, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gave a full-throated argument for his campaign’s central proposition: the deportation of America’s 11 million undocumented residents.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country,” Trump said. “Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges. That is those relying on public welfare or straining the safety net along with millions of recent illegal arrivals and overstays who’ve come here under this current corrupt administration.”
Trump’s speech was his strongest public expansion on his immigration policy in recent months. It also, when taken in the context of his disastrous visit with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, sends a mixed message, according to the New York Times. After all, how can Mexico and the United States secure the border when Nieto had declared the previous day that there would be no payment (this, despite Trump’s protestations that the two “didn’t discuss” the wall during their Wednesday meeting in Mexico City)? It didn’t take long for Trump to double-down the next day in Arizona: “Mexico will pay for the wall,” he said, “believe me — 100 percent — they don’t know it yet, but they will pay for the wall.”
It’s also worth noting that the policy specifics of Trump’s speech were off. Despite accusing President Barack Obama of being lax on immigration, the current administration spent a record $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined (per the New York Times). By the end of 2013, deportations reached a record high of 438,421 unauthorized immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center; while that number dropped 5 percent the next year, the Obama administration has still deported a total of 2.4 million between 2009 and 2014.
(Chart: Pew Research Center)
If those annual numbers sound low, that’s a good thing: Border apprehensions are at a four-decade low, per Pew, indicating that the so-called flood of drugs and crime has, in fact, slowed to a steady trickle, and that Obama is proactively deporting those who do slip through more than other recent administrations.
(Chart: Pew Research Center)
Besides, the population of Mexicans in the U.S. declined by 140,000 people between 2009 to 2014, meaning more Mexicans are headed home than coming here. According to a 2016 report by the Center for Migration Studies, that’s because of a skyrocketing rate of charges for illegal entry and re-entry under the Obama administration’s purview:
(Chart: Pew Research Center)
But that all may change, in small part thanks to the federal government’s efforts to wean itself off of the prison-industrial complex. The Department of Homeland Security said on Monday that it would “evaluate” whether the use of private detention facilities for the purposes of border enforcement “should be eliminated,” in Secretary Jeh Johnson’s words. The announcement comes weeks after the Department of Justice revealed plans to discontinue the use of some 13 private prison facilities after an internal report revealed the substandard conditions of “contract prisons.”
The gradual closure of private detention centers is a tremendous operational blow to the border enforcement apparatus deployed by the Obama administration — and, in turn, a potentially huge obstacle for a Trump presidency. The Washington Postnotes that 60 percent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s more than 400,000 detainees are held in private prisons, with nine of the 10 largest detention facilities operated by the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike the closure of private prisons, which would affect just 12 percent of U.S. prisoners in federal facilities (themselves 14 percent of the U.S. prison population), a shutdown of Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities could forcefully bottleneck arrests and detentions, proving to be quite the monkey wrench in Trump’s immigration policy—by literally shutting down the institutions that carry out his plan. Even if the U.S. did triple the number of ICE officers as Trump proposed on Wednesday, there will be (at least temporarily) a dearth of places to hold them.
Even if the literal closure of brick-and-mortar facilities doesn’t choke detentions under the Trump administration, the shift toward federal facilities may inject a portion of human dignity into an immigration system (and political campaign) already rife with dehumanization. The vast majority of the 22,600 inmates in contract prisons operated by the Bureau of Prisons in 2015 were Mexican nationals with convictions for immigration offenses, where they “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [Bureau of Prisons] institutions,” including hunger strikes over poor conditions, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, prolonged detention in short-term facilities, violations of due process and legal access, and the separation of children from their parents, according to reports by the Center for Migration Studies.
Whether or not the Department of Homeland Security’s decision on private detention facilities actually changes Trump’s detention calculus, it’s still a blow to the idea that incarceration should be a profit-driven exercise in American society — and a blow to the idea that the immigration detention system stands outside of American legal and moral values. Trump may claim that anyone in the country may be subject to deportation — and he may inherit a very different system should he somehow make his way to the White House.
There’s a strange, gentle irony in the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement that preceded Trump’s immigration hullabaloo this week. Despite leading to one of the biggest expansions in immigration detention in the last decade (although, yes, far below historical levels), the Obama administration is effectively thumbing its nose at Trump’s vision of America’s immigration apparatus. When it comes to keeping peace at the border and sticking it to a political enemy, the Obama administration is having its cake and eating it too.