Fear is the message of the first 100 days of Trump’s migration policies
Donald Trump hasn’t issued any novel executive order on migration
or even done “more of the same”; he just repeated what existed before.
His issuing of one order after another on the subject during his first 100 days
was more to send out the message that he’s taken matters into his hands,
and above all to hammer home a message of fear to Americans
the message that they‘re under threat from aliens,
that immigration is a danger to national security,
not just to employment or the economy.
José Luis Rocha
During his election campaign, Donald Trump said he would expel millions of undocumented immigrants and would complete the wall along the US-Mexican border, forcing Mexico to foot the bill. Then in his first 100 days in government—the first week, in fact—he demonstrated the executive branch’s broad room for maneuver when he employed executive orders to shape immigration policy, circumventing Congress.
Perhaps because he’s the first person with neither political nor military experience to have taken possession of the imperial US presidency, Trump acted with the expeditious style of a CEO exploiting his position at the top of the pyramid to send down directives with a speed that was too fast for the slow-moving state apparatus and that also ignored the complex political pulley system of powers and counter-powers, the weight of state heterogeneity and the budgetary limitations of the United States, which can run up debts and survive on the brink of bankruptcy just like a corporation, but not necessarily in the categories proposed by the executive branch.
The order that most affects us
Having been in the Oval Office for just five days, Trump issued an executive order on January 25 on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” which sought, in its own words, “to ensure the safety and territorial integrity of the United States as well as to ensure that the Nation’s immigration laws are faithfully executed….” Of all the actions taken by the new executive branch so far, this is the one that has most to do with migration from Central American countries. The order instructs the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take the following measures “to achieve complete operational control of the southern border”: a) immediately plan, design and construct a physical wall along the southern border, using appropriate materials and technology; b) identify and, to the extent permitted by law, allocate all sources of federal funds to achieve the above-mentioned task; c) project and develop long-term funding requirements for the wall, including preparing Congressional budget requests for the current and upcoming fiscal years; and, d) produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border, to be completed within 180 days of this order, that shall include the current state of southern border security, all geophysical and topographical aspects of the southern border and the availability of federal and state moneys necessary to achieve complete operational control of the southern border.
The order also calls for appropriate actions to construct and operate or establish contracts to construct, operate or control facilities to detain aliens. The DHS secretary is further instructed to hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents, take all appropriate actions to ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings or their removal from the country, and issue new policy guidance to all DHS personnel regarding the “appropriate and consistent use of lawful detention authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act, including the termination of the practice commonly known as ‘catch and release.’”
The newest and most dangerous parts of the executive order
More dangerous with respect to both content and novelty is section 10 of this executive order, which refers to an agreement that must be reached between the federal level and the state and local levels. It states that the new executive branch policy is “to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States to the maximum extent permitted by law.” To this end the DHS secretary is instructed to take appropriate action to authorize law enforcement officials deemed qualified and appropriate to perform these functions “in relation to the investigation, apprehension, or detention of aliens in the United States” under the secretary’s direction and supervision. Such authorization shall be “in addition to, rather than in place of,” federal performance of these duties.
Section 11, on Parole, Asylum, and Removal, defines the new executive branch policy as ending the “abuse of parole and asylum provisions [of federal immigration law] currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens.” The DHS secretary is thus also tasked with ensuring that asylum is not “illegally exploited” to prevent the deportation of such aliens and must see to it that parole authority is exercised “only on a case-by-case basis” and “only when an individual demonstrates urgent humanitarian reasons or a significant public benefit derived from such parole.” In all cases the executive order instructs the DHS secretary to execute the appropriate actions in a manner consistent with the “plain language” of the relevant provisions. In other words, no lenient interpretations are to be permitted.
And finally, together with the secretary of the interior and directors of other state bodies, the DHS secretary is required to take appropriate actions to allow access to federal lands to all federal officials and employees and also to local and state ones as required for the executive order’s implementation.
His main target is the “sanctuary cities”
President Trump issued another executive order the same day titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” This was the order with easily the most negative potential impact, supposedly aimed at ensuring the public safety of US citizens within their own country. Its explicit assumption is that application of immigration laws inside the country is crucial because foreigners who have already entered illegally or overstayed or otherwise failed to comply with the terms of their visa “present a significant threat to national security and public safety,” the same terminology used to justify the other executive order, adding that “this is particularly so for aliens who engage in criminal conduct in the United States.”
This order mainly goes after the sanctuary jurisdictions, in other words the heterogeneity of the State that expresses the diversity of US citizens’ political positions regarding immigration, which envoi identified in June 2016 as one of then-candidate Trump’s probable main targets. Trump argues that sanctuary jurisdictions deliberately violate federal legislation in their attempt to shelter foreigners from deportation. According to Trump’s order:
“These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.
“Tens of thousands of removable aliens have been released into communities across the country, solely because their home countries refuse to accept their repatriation. Many of these aliens are criminals who have served time in our Federal, State, and local jails. The presence of such individuals in the United States, and the practices of foreign nations that refuse the repatriation of their nationals, are contrary to the national interest.”
It goes on to state that “We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
The following are some of the order’s policies to put a stop to the “sanctuary cities” it claims threaten the State’s sovereignty:
a) Ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable federal immigration law do not receive federal funds, except those mandated by law (the director of the Office of Management and Budget is directed to obtain and provide relevant and responsive information on all federal grant money currently received by any sanctuary jurisdiction).
b) “In line with the law” but under his own discretion, the DHS secretary has the authority to designate a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction and take legal measures against it.
c) The DHS secretary is to use the Declined Detainer Outcome Report or its equivalent to better inform the public on public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions and publish a weekly comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers for those aliens.
d) Ensure the prompt removal of aliens ordered to leave the United States.
e) Support people and their families who have been victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.
f) Reinstitute the “Secure Communities” immigration program that served during the Obama administration to legitimize round-ups in Latino neighborhoods and further intertwined the already overlapped immigration policies and penal legislation during the Bush administration.
The order prioritizes the deportation of aliens convicted of any criminal act or charged with a criminal offense even if the charge has not been resolved; and those who have committed acts constituting a chargeable criminal offense, engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency, abused any program related to receipt of public benefits, are subject to a final removal order but have not complied with their legal obligation to leave the country, or in the judgment of an immigration officer pose a risk to public safety or national security in some other way.
When required by law, the DHS secretary is required within a year of this order being issued to issue guidance and promulgate regulations to ensure the assessment and collection of the fines and penalties he is authorized to apply to aliens unlawfully present in the United States or to those who facilitate their presence in the country. The secretary is also obliged to hire an additional 10,000 immigration officers authorized to perform law enforcement functions to complete the relevant training.
Meanwhile, the order explicitly instructs state and local law enforcement agencies empowered to perform the functions of immigration officers inside the United States in the first executive order to investigate, apprehend or detain aliens in the United States under the direction and supervision of the secretary.
This order increases the bureaucratic overlap between immigration policies and penal legislation by requiring both the DHS secretary and the attorney general to deliver quarterly reports on the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated under the supervision of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all aliens incarcerated as federal pretrial detainees under the supervision of the US Marshals Service and all convicted aliens serving sentences in state prisons and local detention centers.
Six countries and youth gangs in Trump’s sights
Then on February 9, Trump issued yet another executive order, this one titled “Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking.” It enhances federal legislation to fight against immigrant smuggling, again including this in the same packet as human, drug and arms trafficking.
One of its sections orders strengthened implementation of the laws against organized crime, “including criminal gangs.” Trump more specifically demonstrated his interest in the US youth gangs formed among immigrants of Central American origin when he spoke at a National Rifle Association (NRA) session about MS-13, a gang that started up in Los Angeles among Salvadorans in the 1980s. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prides itself on having arrested hundreds of MS-13 members (322 in 2015 and 429 in 2016).
Then on March 6, Trump issued his better-known order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (Executive Order 13780), which replaced the January 27 one by the same name that was blocked by the courts. Like that first failed attempt, this order temporarily suspended the entry of citizens from six countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. While never signaling that citizens of those countries are also the victims of wars that have badly affected their lands and turned their lives upside down, it states that they “present heightened risks to the security of the United States.” It also sought to reduce immigration, as almost 2,500 refugees from the six countries involved had entered the United States in less than a month of Trump’s administration.
No sooner had Trump issued these orders than legal challenges began to materialize, with several judges demonstrating the limitations of such presidential pretensions of overriding the judicial branch. It was a tour de force of state heterogeneity, which Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos sees as expressed in the fact that “there are not only sectors of state activity developing at different rhythms and occasionally in opposite directions, but they also produce dilemmas and inconsistencies in the State’s action, so much so that sometimes it isn’t possible to distinguish a coherent model of state action.”
Between formal courtesies and declarations of war
One consequence of this heterogeneity is certainly incoherence among the policies. But incoherence also frequently expresses a dissent that reveals the extent to which a diversit of judgments can crystallize into a variety of policies.
Trump seemingly knows this, which is why he’s hitting out at the sanctuary jurisdictions and has tempered the language of his orders, adorning them with formal courtesies to the legislative branch, such as the phrase “to the extent permitted by law.”
But this sugar coating is a mere formality that may have a certain impact in law suits, but neither achieves nor seeks to sweeten any of the incendiary expressions Trump uses to disseminate his policies when he ventures out of the relatively restrained sphere where state bureaucratic protocol reigns. Once he mounts the stage of big politics, he has the authority to give free rein to his most fiery declarations, which are like addenda or seals attached to his executive orders.
One example is Trump’s nearly imperceptible reference to “criminal gangs” in his executive order about transnational criminal organizations, a directive wrapped in the now-accustomed formulas used to cover his back, which was followed by a proclamation of war specifically against MS-13 at that NRA convention. In seeking to promote both a social “appropriation” of his policies and a dangerous privatization and expansion of them by extrajudicial means, he gives the green light to those with a watchful eye and a trigger-happy finger who want to exercise their citizens’ rights to a supposedly legitimate form of self-defense or a sullied state sovereignty.
The border wall between Mexico and the United States was Trump’s most spectacular anti-immigrant campaign promise, but he has run up against the cold skepticism of the Congress members who have to approve that multibillion-dollar impenetrable wall. The legislators know the government hasn’t yet resolved many compensation cases involving land owners affected by acquisitions made under President George W. Bush’s 2006 Secure Fence Act. To close the books on the first third of this wall, the government still has to deal with hundreds of suits that have been going on for over a decade now and cost the US Treasury a fortune. The order to complete the wall has thus run up against the imbalance between its doubtful benefits and its unquestionably monumental costs.
Trump’s executive orders don’t actually contain much new
These are all relatively minor aspects. More important is the fact that, when one hacks one’s way through all the legalistic verbiage in Trump’s executive orders, one discovers they don’t really contain anything new. Most of their mandates are ritual gestures that only repeat legislation already approved and being implemented or present as supposedly fresh orders actions that already form part of the routine work of different state bodies, particularly the DHS.
The most obvious case is the call for geophysical and other studies on the border and on migratory flows. Truth be told, the border has been the object of all sorts of studies and tons of pages that will end up moth-eaten and gathering dust somewhere, and the same is true of migration. There are no strange islands or unknown seas to be discovered here. At the very most, such studies could provide more updated information or reveal the ineffectiveness of the new control mechanisms.
The agreements on immigration among the federal, state and local levels are nothing new either. Many are already in force and the ways they are negotiated or fail to be established reflect the diversity of positions among the states, counties and cities regarding immigration policies, which are a federal responsibility.
Such agreements are not determinant. Their proclamation is aimed at achieving the kind of permanent media presence that gives the feeling “something is happening,” that the government is fulfilling what it promised, even if the signatures of the representatives of two or more state entities have no effect whatever on what’s happening on the streets of LA, the Arizona desert or the Brownsville/Matamoros border crossing.
When the local will is favorable to federal anti-immigrant directives, such agreements are superfluous. This has been demonstrated in the cases of local politicians and officials like former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jean Brewer, both of Arizona, who pursue undocumented people with a zeal that has no need for agreements and goes even beyond the federal legislation.
And when such federal directives don’t feel right, they are sometimes applied more in the breach than in the observance. An example of this was the “catch and release” protocol. That longstanding immigration policy practice involved routinely releasing within the United States aliens apprehended for immigration law violations pending their hearing before an immigration judge.
While it was officially terminated in 2006 during President George W. Bush’s term in office, it it has apparently been applied in practice in recent years with the wave of undocumented minors trying to enter the United States to reunite with their families. Both those children and any adults accompanying them were allowed to live with their relatives until their cases were resolved in the migration courts. Now that Trump has reminded the relevant personnel that “catch and release” is terminated, he is surely expecting ICE agents to accelerate the deportation processes using the discretionality granted them.
The deportations are also more of the same
The deportation of immigrants who have committed crimes is also nothing new. To make it obvious, the DHS it has been presenting its figures on those deported since its relatively recent creation, disaggregating those who committed crimes and those who did not.
Arrests for crimes against immigration laws have been on the rise ever since efforts were redoubled to hyper-illegalize unauthorized immigration, accounting for 50% of all federal arrests in 2014, compared to only 28% a decade earlier. Back in 2004, non-citizens in general made up 43% of federal arrests, while in 2014 they comprised 60%. The over-criminalization of immigration during the Trump administration is thus just more of the same; it might maintain this trend and equal its percentages, but it will be hard put to exceed the already record figures.
No real innovations, just more severe application
Trump supporters probably expected to see a more innovative spirit from a businessman with such a prolific production of books spreading his formulas for accumulating millions. Where are his immigration policy innovations? There are none in his executive orders, though some do display a more extreme application of what already existed, backing up more of the same with a bigger stick.
The case-by-case review of asylum petitions provides a good example of this. Such a review already exists, as these cases aren’t approved as a bloc but are sent to the immigration courts to initiate individual processes that tend to drag on for years, during which time asylum seekers can establish themselves and work in the United States. Trump’s innovation consists of no longer granting the right to apply for asylum by default, allowing immigration officials to expeditiously determine in which cases it applies and in which it does not.
This discretional power already existed and has in fact been closely studied based on the theoretical focus that says street-level bureaucracy is a kind of hidden legislator as it determines how and to what degree policies are applied. Trump made that border bureaucracy power official by using the words “in the judgment of an immigration official.” He thus recognized a decision-making power some ICE agents previously exercised de facto, exceeding their assigned functions.
The most damaging legal change
The fines and punishments for people who facilitate the presence of unauthorized immigrants constitute another intensification of the anti-immigrant policies, but are nothing new legislatively. They are precisely what Arizona’s sadly notorious SB 1070 immigration law and other state legislations modelled on it sought to establish. What’s new is that they raise to the level of federal procedure something that hasn’t yet been implemented in all its severity in all states.
None of these lines of action with which Trump burst onto the stage like a modern-day gladiator to deal a resounding blow to unauthorized immigrants reflect an innovating spirit. Nor are they any more ominous than previously existing policies, as we might have expected from Trump’s promises during his campaign. Compared to the overlap between the penal and immigration systems that laid the foundations for expelling immigrants for minor offenses or the e-verify program applied in many localities, these policies have no enormous potential to further threaten the “illegals” Trump has in his sights.
The legal change that’s the most damaging for undocumented immigrants in decades is the overlap between penal and immigration offenses. And it has the potential to do even more damage given its merging with the so-called “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which extend the length of prison sentences. Both laws resulted from lobbying by the National Rifle Association, to which Trump announced his war against MS-13.
Anti-democratic despotism against sanctuary cities
If forced to compare Trump’s measures to control and punish unauthorized immigration with those preceding him, it could be said that his directives against sanctuary jurisdictions have the greatest potential to affect undocumented immigrants. This is because they financially punish localities that treat undocumented immigrants like legal residents or refuse to collaborate with the federal agencies enforcing immigration policies.
The “Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act” passed by the House of Representatives in 2015 but apparently shelved in the Senate, would have punished these cities, so Trump’s proposals aren’t innovative budgetary sanctions against localities failing to comply with immigration legislation. But they are highly significant because this expanded version threatens the state heterogeneity discussed earlier, so in this sense these directives exercise anti-democratic federal despotism due to their procedures and ultimate aim, which is to exclude.
Numerous confrontations have occurred between the federal administration level and state and local governments in the history of the United States, and other occasions in which the federal level has imposed itself. One famous example is the federal government’s intervention in the 1960s to ensure the southern jurisdictions put an end to segregation, but in that case, the ultimate aim was not anti-democratic because it sought to bring about inclusion. The fact that the will to include doesn’t always come from the same side is why it’s dangerous to defend the imposition of one body over another per se. This issue involves many elements that need to be reflected on both legally and politically.
The message is fear: immigrants are a threat
Donald Trump not only hasn’t issued any innovating mandate in his anti-immigration policies, but generally speaking hasn’t even done “more” of the same—except in the number of ICE agents. His objective in largely repeating the same policies seems to have been to rewrap them in his own packaging.
In addition to sending out the assurance that he’s on board and is taking action, all these anti-immigration orders issued during the first days of his administration blared out warnings that US citizens are under threat and immigration is a danger to national security.
Section 11 of the January 25 executive order on enhancing public safety is a hodgepodge that intertwines offenses against immigration laws with violent crimes and trans¬national criminal organizations operating in the United States. To hammer home this link, Section 13 requires the ICE to produce quarterly studies on the victimization generated by aliens in the United States (in this case omitting the adjective “deportable,” making it equally applicable to those with Temporary Protection Status or a green card and those lacking any authorization).
It also calls on the ICE director to establish an office “to provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens and the family members of such victims.” The ICE’s obligation to provide such undefined “services” (financial?... psychological?) to victims is very likely an extremely unusual task for it. Why wasn’t it assigned instead to a body that normally provides such services? The answer is probably to emphasize that those “aliens” are a further burden to the immigration services and increase their spending in multiple ways.
Mission accomplished: the idea is firmly implanted that immigrants are leaving in their wake a trail of crimes and victims the State hasn’t yet been able to weigh up. It’s a theater of terror in which orders that establish nothing new are aimed at spreading the conviction that immigrants are a collective threat not just to employment or finance, but more importantly to national security. This is the refrain repeated by all of the executive orders.
The theater is the message: The spectacle of politics
The electoral campaign’s Donald Trump said the United States cannot continue the luxury of being the world’s policeman and has to rebuild its own country. In the same vein, he criticized Washington’s intervention in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as President, Trump poured gasoline on the tensions in North Korea, including a theatrical and provoking visit by Vice President Pence to the border between the two Koreas; attacked a Syrian air strip using 59 Tomahawk missiles; multiplied the frequency of attacks on Yemen; and dropped “the mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.
Analyst Robert Fisk, a journalist with the British paper The Independent, argues that this theater of war produced positive results for Trump: “…the moment he went to war in Yemen, fired missiles at Syria and bombed Afghanistan, even the US media Trump had so ferociously condemned began to treat him with respect.” Mexican writer Juan Villoro could have predicted this turnaround in Trump’s reputation, having written the following about another US President: “You don’t need the shrewdness of McLuhan to know that global spectacles divert attention away from other news. During the Winter Olympics, Clinton promised he would not attack Iraq until the last skater returned home. The measure seemed appropriate for a contest that starts by releasing doves, but it had another motive: the ‘Desert Storm II’ super production would have had very low ratings during the games, and in the United States bombings bestow popularity.”
Trump harvested that same popularity. His super production based on wars and taking a stick to undocumented people has caught the media’s attention.
Trump’s iron fist, Obama’s slack hand
Executive orders are part of Trump’s tragicomedy to gain respect and credibility. But his public appearances have an even greater effect and sometimes work to multiply or extend the orders with no legal commitments. His intervention about MS-13 at the NRA convention resulted in the media saying Trump had issued three orders against Central American criminal gangs when in fact all three were orders to reduce criminal activity, only one of which included the word “gangs” once and with no explicit mention of Central American youth gangs.
Noting the fuss his words raised, Trump stated in another appearance that MS-13 was enemy number one in security terms and that Obama had allowed them to form in the United States. Trump is probably not so badly informed that he actually thinks there was anything true in his statement, but he does know that these kinds of declaration have the effect of contrasting his iron-fist-style administration with the supposed laxity of Obama’s, which is blamed for the risk US society is supposedly currently facing.
To better understand what Trump is doing, it’s worth looking at the notion of the theater of politics developed by British historian Edward Palmer Thompson in the 1970s. Thompson expanded the conception of political action through the notion of theater as an instrument of political control exercised by cultivating symbolic authority.
Theatrical expressions of power
Those in dominant positions often resort to theatrical expressions to recover their command over minds. The most dramatic locations for this “theater of power” were the 18th-century galley ships that convicted prisoners were condemned to row and other places of public punishment and even execution, such as the town-center gallows. According to Thompson, who employed the concept of theater to examine the forms of political control used by the dominant class in the 18th century, the effect of such terrifying theatrical components on class control depended on local propaganda, which was guaranteed by the crowds watching the procession to the galley ships or the hangings, the subsequent gossip in the markets and workshops, and the sale of leaflets with the victims’ “last words.”
That theater of power also had its less menacing side, in which the dominant personages largely sheathed their swords to engage in acts of glaring theatrical visibility: great mansions, highly ornamented clothes, patrician gestures, the hunting ritual, pompous judicial courts, late entrances and early departures during church services, handing out alms to poor people during funerals…
While Thompson’s study was time-bound, he warned that “in all societies, of course, theatre is an essential component both of political control and of protest or even rebellion.” In other words, today’s world is not exempt from such theater, and the dominated also respond with theatrical political actions.
Thompson’s approach is useful in revealing aspects of the actions and strategies employed by Donald Trump—as well as by immigrants—that might go unperceived under more conventional focuses. It’s particularly appropriate in Trump’s case, as he is a media hound who has spent decades trying to project himself as a model to be imitated in the business world. He has staged it by employing elements of the cult of success and prosperity, as reflected in the titles of his largely ghost-written books: How to Get Rich, Think Big and Kick Ass, Think Like a Champion, Think Like a Billionaire, The Way to the Top, Surviving at the Top…
The meaning of success in Trump’s theater
Following the same pattern, Trump is now promoting himself as the model to be imitated in governing, changing the backdrop but not the techniques involved, thus turning politics into a show, with immigrants among its main cast of villains. In other words, Trump is trying to stage the successful administration of a company called the United States of America. Amazon even reports that he already has a new book rolling off the presses titled President Donald Trump.
His executive orders are an element of this theatricality. But they’re not the essential one because they’re constrained by the legalistic language, the style established by state uses and customs, and the limited license open to that literary genre. For that reason they’re preceded and followed by public appearances—on stages suitable for such political theater—on which Trump announces, comments on, breaks down and clarifies the contents hidden behind the prose those documents necessarily employ. His speeches, tweets and media declarations, not the orders, are the theater that reaches the broad public and through which he seeks to have an effect outside of the corset imposed by bureaucracy. In so doing, Trump reduces the possibility of legal risks and expands the power of the orders.
Whereas Obama sometimes allowed himself to be a little more colorful in his declarations than in his documents, Trump shamelessly spews out threats that mark a greater distance between the executive pen and the oratory of the tribune. The license of the latter sphere allows him to brag, which can have a dissuasive effect, creating an impression of success in Trump’s policies or theater.
Has there already been a “Trump effect” on Central American migration?
It’s too soon to weigh up the success of the executive orders and more theatrical measures with any certainty. At least in the deportation data, however, we can already see that Trump’s mixture of the two seems to be having a dissuasive conjuring effect that began even before he took office.
Comparing the October 2015-January 2016 period with October 2016-January 2017 (the latter ending the month Trump took office), the apprehension of immigrants travelling in family units increased 120% and that of unaccompanied minors at the southern border increased 26% (from 24,612 to 54,147, and from 20,393 to 25,694, respectively). Salvadorans had the greatest weight in the first category, while around a third of the unaccompanied Central American minors were Guatemalans. While this could reflect more effective apprehension measures it is more likely due to an increased flow of immigrants rushing to cross the border before the change in immigration policies. If so, Trump’s promise to complete the wall and enhance the application of the immigration policies had an accelerating effect on immigration. Evidence of this “Trump effect” in a contrary time frame is that the number of people who presented themselves at the entry points on the southern border and were rejected (labelled “inadmissible” in US Customs and Border Protection terminology) fell from 20,529 in October 2016 to only 4,651 in April 2017 (the latter date four months into Trump’s executive-order-issuing presidency), which suggests that fewer bothered to try once Trump was at the helm.
A short period of field work in the municipality of Zacualpa in Quiché, Guatemala, confirmed that migration is continuing, but with a notable deceleration. In the first five months of 2016 the Fe y Alegría school in that city registered 22 cases of children dropping out to emigrate to the United States, while in the first four months of 2017 only four pupils dropped out for the same reason.
Other figures are ambiguous, such as the fact that in October 2015 to September 2016 Border Patrol officers captured 408,870 individuals on the southern border, which is much higher than the 331,333 in 2015 but lower than the 479,371 in 2014. This allows us to maintain the hypothesis of acceleration at the end of 2016 and to speculate that it isn’t symptomatic of a rising cycle, as it isn’t impressive enough to exceed other peak immigration years.
What we are calling the “Trump effect” was possibly an incentive to attempt to emigrate to the US under the wire before Trump’s inauguration, which could mean an acceleration at the end of 2016. But so far Trump’s theatrics have not fulfilled their purpose of reducing immigration to levels much lower than the actually rather typical ones of Trump’s first 100 days.
“Overstayers” who enter with a visa and then remain in the country
Illegal crossings are not the only way of increasing the number of undocumented people and are not therefore the only area for assessing the effectiveness of Trump’s policies. Reports produced by congressional consultants reveal that at least 40% of unauthorized immigrants entered the country with a visa then overstayed the period granted to them.
This was very well known before Trump came to power. In a testimony to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in 2013, Bernard L. Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, estimated that “more than 40% of the unauthorized migrants currently resident in the United States did not cross the borders illegally. Instead, they arrived in the United States on a lawful tourist, student, business, or other visa and then violated the terms of that visa by remaining in the United States.”
Up until September 2016, a pilot program to test biometrics for controlling entries and departures had cost nearly US$13 million. Based on those tests, a report in February 2017 revealed that in 2015 alone half a million people had remained in the United States for longer than the time granted by the immigration authorities. Moreover, not a single notification was sent informing officers in the field to further investigate and apply the law to the more than 1.6 million immigrants of that category who had been identified.
In May 2017, a report by the DHS inspector general revealed that office investigations of this kind had been a fruitless waste of precious time. An official responsible for monitoring overstayers spent 225 hours investigating just nine individuals, and after such painstaking efforts, he established that they had already left the country.
Overstayers will remain a challenge to Trump’s aim of ending unauthorized immigration. His punishment of sanctuary cities has so far been the most direct way of complicating their stay, but it’s obvious that, as the DHS inspector general pointed out, the technological limitations make controlling overstayers very expensive and not very effective work for the time being.
Even a quick calculation shows that if locating each overstayer takes 25 hours (over three intense eight-hour working days), locating the half a million of them added every year would take more than 1.5 million working days. Just to keep up with the rate at which they are being added—one overstayer located for each one added—the DHS would need 5,208 officers working 300 days a year exclusively dedicated to locating them, plus all the ICE officers involved in capturing them, plus the judges, public defenders, detention center guards and deportation officers to process them. And that’s without mentioning whatever portion of Mr. Schwartz’s up to 5 million already accumulated overstayers might still be in the US.
Are sanctuary cities an anti-Trump boomerang?
For this reason, Trump’s fanciful project inevitably requires the collaboration of the local authorities. To overcome their unwillingness and undermine the open dissenters, Trump is raising the banner of the federal-level transfers to local governments. He’s threatening financial sanctions for sanctuary cities and pecuniary rewards for collaborators. But by insisting on going after the sanctuary jurisdictions, Trump is treading on quicksand because those jurisdictions aren’t formally constituted. They have no legal status as such and the scope of their concession of rights or simple permissiveness to undocumented immigrants varies greatly. It ranges from numerous jurisdictions that simply refuse to let their officials collaborate with the ICE or that grant the immigrants driving licenses all the way to those that even allow them to vote in local elections (Maryland).
Trump’s focus on them as a subject of immigration policies is a form of recognition, albeit for punitive ends. By granting identity to such a dissimilar conglomeration, the sanctuary jurisdictions could take on a legal life of their own and really increase their political impact. What they’ve been doing with certain discretion so far could become much louder and bring together jurisdictions that didn’t previously recognize themselves as a collective. Ranking areas that currently just have different positions in relation to the federal level as rebelling against the anti-immigration policies could backfire on Trump.
Cutting international aid will only promote migration
In addition to the executive orders, directly aimed at unauthorized immigration to the United States, the Trump government has taken other measures that could have the unforeseen, unintended and even undesired effect of influencing migratory flows. They are the kind of not-explicitly-migratory policies that Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen considers have a high impact on migration and in the current circumstances could express themselves in a clash between economic policy and immigration policy.
For example, in his desire to fund the wall while also promoting strong tax cuts to the wealthy, Trump announced cuts to the USAID Food for Peace program that has reached 3 billion people in 150 countries since President Eisenhower created it in 1954. Trump will also eliminate the Department of Agriculture’s McGovern-Dole Food for Education program and plans to reduce the State Department budget, ignoring the letter signed by more than 120 retired generals arguing that funding for the State Department and USAID is crucial to prevent conflicts and avoiding military solutions.
Cuts in UN funding
Trump is continuing his policy of cuts in the major leagues of US aid by paring down the country’s funding of the United Nations, including the area of support for refugees, which is at least consistent with his immigration proposals. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) receives US$1.5 billion from the United States toward its US$4 billion annual budget, but Trump is proposing clipping its contribution by more than a third.
The US contribution to the UN for aid has been very significant when the circumstances merited it. In 2016, the United States contributed US$10 billion to support refugees, food aid, human rights protection, child vaccination and peacekeeping actions. Trump will reduce the contribution to these programs as well as to UNICEF by 30%, dealing a crushing blow to supra-state heterogeneity.
Up to now, the United States granted these funds knowing that UNHCR has been critical of its policies, albeit in innocuous tones and environments. The cut sends out a punitive message, perhaps penalizing the UN for its New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on the eve of the US election campaign in which it anticipated its opposition to Trump’s posture in an unusually direct way, repeating its commitment to refugees regardless of their legal status and condemning xenophobia and the detention of minors. The UNHCR ratified those positions through its own “Position regarding the detention of refugee and migrant children in the migration context,” which it announced in January 2017 just as Trump was starting to launch his executive orders.
While these and other cuts are in line with Trump’s promises, they could have the effect of promoting migration when combined with the context in which they are applied, with the UN having declared that 20 million people are being affected by the famine hanging over Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. UNICEF estimates that at least 1.4 billion children are at risk of dying from severe malnutrition, yet in addition to all the reductions mentioned above Trump also wants to reduce the US$2 billion the United States contributes to the World Food Programme. The slogan for those affected by the famine is “migration or death,” and there are already 600,000 Sudanese in Uganda. Meanwhile, 7 million of the 30 million inhabitants of Yemen are close to starvation.
The theater of fear or the reality of hunger?
The reduced support for the United Nations and the cuts to programs will also affect Central American countries, which have traditionally benefited from food aid, health, governance, conflict resolution and youth policy programs. [For more on Trump’s proposed and already approved cuts to the region, see the analysis in this issue’s “The Month” section.
The violence that encourages emigration in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador could be exacerbated by the cuts or by the simple theatrical message they convey. The incomes of many members of the rural middle classes depend on jobs in development programs and evaluation surveys, among other factors. The waning of development programs could provide another reason for migrating.
Meanwhile, the proposed Nica Act legislation in the United States is threatening a US veto on loans to Nicaragua from the international financial institutions as a mechanism for exerting pressure to re-establish democracy in Nicaragua. But even if it isn’t passed or isn’t applied, Nicaragua’s government could lose all support from the United States if Trump gets his FY 2018 budget proposal approved as it includes financial penalization on Nicaragua as one of the four countries that recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia when they separated from Georgia. In 2016 Nicaragua received a bilateral donation of US$41 million from the United States, which is not a pittance for such a small economy.
Once again the theater of geopolitics and cuts could run against the objective of reducing undocumented immigration to the United States. These policies, even though not specifically considered immigration policies, could have a great impact in this regard. Trump is playing with the theater of fear and the reality of hunger, but only time will tell if it turns out to be a game in which theater ends up imposing itself over reality.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas of El Salvador and associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics (IDGT) of Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University.