Wednesday, September 26, 2018

US Immigration Policy as a Machine

On Monday I participated on a panel about immigration at Washington College. Christine Wade invited Adam Isacson, Ana Patricia Rodríguez, and Adriana Beltrán. I am going to transform that into a podcast episode when I have a free minute so everyone can listen--it was a great discussion with good student participation at the end. In the meantime, here is my own contribution, which centers on immigration as a machine. I am not the first to refer to it that way, but my goal was to use the metaphor to highlight how we got to the Trump administration.

Immigration Policy in the Trump Era

The core argument I want to make is that the immigration policy we see today in the United States is the logical (though certainly extreme) conclusion of policies from the past five presidential administrations. Over the last 30 years there has been a bipartisan construction of a massive detention and deportation machine. Think about what a machine is. It is indifferent to humans and responds to them only as programmed. And of course it is programmed by humans.

I will give a sketch of this machine’s bipartisan history, especially of precedents it set over time.

Trump did not create this machine. The political establishment that he claims to hate created it. He simply began using it to its full capacity.

1984: the Reagan administration started the first privately run prison as a way to save money and presumably to boost the private sector. Now 2/3 of immigrant detainees go through a privately run prison. This machine is big business. (Trivia note: the news of President Trump’s election led to a nearly 58 percent raise in the stock of CoreCivic).

1986: the Reagan administration managed to pass the Immigration Reform & Control Act, a landmark bill. One of its provisions allowed businesses to make a good faith effort to determine whether immigration documents were legitimate. That created a booming business in black market documents and thus began increasing the number of immigrants engaged in illegal activity. The machine was priming its victims.

1990: the George HW Bush administration (who you don’t usually hear much about for immigration) cemented the now-universal practice of hiring more border patrol agents as a way to gain conservative support for immigration bills (for the otherwise solid Immigration Act of 1990). In FY 1992 there were 4,139 Border Patrol agents. In FY 2017 there were 19,437. The machine is well-staffed. (Trivia note: this law also for the first time established Temporary Protected Status and included Salvadorans).

1996: the Clinton administration began expanding the scope of what should count as a crime (like not appearing in court), thus increasingly criminalizing immigrants. President Clinton also established the precedent of adding more border fence as a way to gain support. He did plenty of other things, such as increasing the number of people to be detained and MOUs with local law enforcement. So the machine eats up more and more people.

2002: the Bush administration put immigration in the newly created Department of Homeland Security. So the machine is militarized.

2007: after intense pressure, President Bush agrees to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees. From the 2003 invasion until 2007, he had accepted a grand total of 466. The machine feels so responsibility for the problems its programmers create.

2012: the Obama administration deports over 400,000 people. No president in history had reached 400,000 before. They did subsequently go down but that’s not the point. The point is that it established a precedent of goals the machine was capable of reaching.

2014: the Obama administration separated families in detention centers. It seems to be in small numbers and for short duration though they did not keep track. That is not really the point. The point is that it established a precedent. The machine does not have emotions.

In January 2017 this shiny and powerful machine was working hard and ready for its next leader. If that person happens to think non-white immigrants are like vermin and should be rounded up in greater numbers, the machine is ready to roll.

Since then, Trump has:

1. Drastically increased the idea of how much fencing/wall should be built

2. Widened the deportation net to include everyone rather than focus on, say, criminals

3. Increased family separation as a way to frighten migrants and deter migration

4. Called for major expansion of border patrol

5. Ended TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for a number of different countries, including El Salvador

6. Called for decreasing legal migration

7. Imposed travel ban that centered on Muslim countries

8. Got rid of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

9. Announced it wanted as few refugees as possible

These are extreme but they are natural extreme extensions of what has been constructed over 30 years. The system was already militarized, securitized, and punitive.

Some conclusions:

· Democrats cannot take the high road with regard to immigration. Even with DACA, it means consciously ranking undocumented immigrants.

· If Donald Trump loses to a Democrat in 2020, that person will inherit a machine that is humming along on its own 24/7/365. You have to take it apart.

· Abolishing ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) is a nice slogan but has no real meaning. You have to change the nature of the machine itself.

· Changing the machine’s nature is difficult. You have to pass new laws, which requires congressional majorities. You have to make a lot of people lose their jobs. You have to spend tons of money.

· We can better understand why Latino support for Democratic presidential candidates is not currently high.

This machine can be dismantled or reprogrammed, but we have to decide whether we have the will to do it.


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