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Donald Trump’s Immigration Policy Is Already Here

The president-elect’s central campaign promise was already 16 years in the making.

By Jared Keller


Thousands of anti-Trump protesters took to the streets in cities across the United States this weekend. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ever since he decried undocumented Mexicans as criminals and rapists during his campaign kickoff last year, aggressive immigration reform has been a policy pillar of Donald Trump’s electoral mantra. Now the president-elect, Trump has promised to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” in the first 100 days of his presidency. In his first post-election comments on his immigration platform, he doubled down on that deportation promise.

“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Trump told60 Minutes in an interview Sunday. “But we’re getting them out of our country; they’re here illegally.”

Trump’s pronouncements paint a foreboding picture for American immigrants. Most symbolic of this future is the appointment of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to Trump’s transition team. Kobach, as the Daily Kos points out, is the architect of “the most racist law in modern American history”: Arizona’s controversial 2010 SB-1070 law, which empowers police “to ask for papers from anyone they have a reasonable suspicion of being without status,” including “any person of color, or anyone with a foreign accent,” as the Center for American Progress describes it.

In all likelihood, Trump will indeed manage to make good on his promise. The Trump administration could easily direct the Immigration and Customs Enforcement — whose union endorsed Trump in an electoral first and whose agents, BuzzFeed reports, are thrilled with his victory — to ratchet up its tactics on the country’s southwest border.

“Trump has vowed to expand the definition of ‘criminal alien,’ for example, to include immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are convicted of drunken driving,” NPR explains. “Without the approval of Congress, a President Trump could instruct his immigration agents to round up every immigrant convicted of a crime and deport them all.”

The irony of Trump’s immigration promise is that, despite any alarming rhetoric, it’s really nothing new. President Barack Obama has overseen a record number of deportations during the course of his administration with 2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015 alone, more than any other single presidency in American history, according to an ABC News analysis. This uptick in immigration prosecutions over illegal entry made Trump’s campaign accusations that the Obama administration was lax on border security a farce — the Mexican emigre population of the United States actually declined between 2009 and 2014. Trump’s fiery rhetoric only obscured the truth of U.S. immigration policy: Post-9/11 fear of foreigners has pushed deportations to a record high.

And as Vox’s Dara Lind points out, almost every state and local prison in the U.S. had become a “feeder” for federal immigration authorities as part of the Secure Communities program that was developed by the George W. Bush administration and enforced under Obama, sharing “digital footprints” of any suspect prisoners with federal agents in order to “more effectively identify and facilitate the removal of criminal aliens in the custody of state and local law enforcement agencies.” In essence, this transforms every local police officer into an immigration agent. Despite its name, Secure Communities “led to no meaningful reductions in the F.B.I. index crime rate … nor has it reduced rates of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault,” according to a 2014 study by two law professors.

Obama canceled the program in 2014, replacing it with the Priority Enforcement Program, which simply shifted the burden of apprehension and imprisonment to federal authorities who would “seek notification of an individual’s pending release from custody” without ending local-federal data sharing. In plain English: Don’t keep these guys locked up for us, just let us know when they’re getting cut loose so we can lock them up.

The Obama administration’s deputizing of local police forces under Secure Communities and the Priority Enforcement Program followed in the footsteps’ of 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which authorized local police forces to enforce federal immigration law under state-federal partnerships. After 9/11, the Bush administration kicked these partnerships into high gear, utilizing the country’s 800,000 police officers as a massive “force multiplier” to root out terrorists exploiting weaknesses in the existing immigration system. This tactic led to an increase in workplace raids — a practice that’s continued under the Obama administration.

For good measure, here’s Kobach (at that point a law professor and recent White House fellow) writing in 2006 about the nature of these state-federal partnerships:

This assistance need only be occasional, passive, voluntary, and pursued during the course of normal law enforcement activity. The net that is cast daily by local law enforcement during routine encounters with members of the public is so immense that it is inevitable illegal aliens will be identified.

It won’t take much to turn Trump’s immigration vows from political promises to policy realities. “The deportation machine is there — it’s been built by two past presidencies,” observes Lind, adding that Trump will likely return to the large-scale raids that grabbed headlines under the Bush administration.

While the gears of deportation were churning in the background under Obama, they’ll probably be less hesitant about baring their teeth going forward.