Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the defining institution of the Trump era. ICE, like Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has long been a corrupt, white supremacist-ridden stronghold of arbitrary state power. But under the new administration, both agencies have reached new heights of brazenness. So many stories—first shocking, then numbing—have appeared that it would be pointless to try for representative instances; the day’s roundup can be sampled by searching Twitter for #abolishICE.
A year ago, I tried to make sense of what the Trump Administration’s Middle Eastern and African travel ban meant for immigrants in the United States.1 Its logic, I’d observed, was only superficially similar to the long-established anti-“illegal” hymnbook from which it descended. That genre had relied on the figure of the legal immigrant as its beneficiary: undocumented people, it argued, were harming the law-abiding immigrants who formed the central civic myth of American society. But the travel ban used very different language. In its single-minded obsession with birthplace, it did not even seem to recognize the distinction between “legal” and “illegal.” This erasure was terrifying for immigrants like me, who had invested so much in placing ourselves on the right side of the velvet rope. But it also held forth the promise and urgency of a new kind of pan-immigrant solidarity, one that would no longer cling to pieces of paper for its self-definition.
At the time it was still unclear whether the language of the ban was simply an artifact of the frantic rush of racist mania in which it had been assembled. Today the ambiguity is gone. There can no longer be any doubt that the goal of the Trump Administration is to uproot immigration as we’d once known it, with the Aryan racial purity, represented (in typical Nazi fashion) by white Scandinavians, now the sole recognized doorway into Americanness.
It may seem excessive to take such an apocalyptic view of the situation. The latest numbers paint a deeply ambiguous picture of the current state of immigration enforcement. During his two terms, Barack Obama ramped up formal removals at the expense of voluntary border returns. The earlier, Clinton-era system had involved the deportation of many times more people, but largely without permanent legal consequences; those returned were more or less free to try again. Under Obama, the rapidly growing E-Verify program, which confirms employment eligibility electronically, converged with an expanding web of private and public detention centers to force more and more undocumented workers into the shadows and heighten the repression they faced. (Four times more people are detained today than under Clinton.) Today’s enforcement patterns continue this trend, and total numbers of immigration removals have in fact fallen compared to 2016.
What has changed is the role of interior enforcement. The travel ban reinforced the role of visa officers and passport control as the gatehouses of a Fortress America still notionally free to pretend things were still normal within its walls. The ban’s companion order, “Enhancing Public Safety In The Interior of the United States,” has burned more slowly, and its most consequential provisions—like nearly tripling the ranks of ICE agents—have taken longer to set in. But a year in, ICE has begun to turn all of society into a checkpoint, moving beyond CBP’s legal right to ignore all constitutional restraints in a hundred-mile strip beyond every land and sea border. Interior removals and arrests are up some forty percent over 2016. At the outset of the Trump era liberals like Timothy Snyder wrung their hands about an imminent suspension of democracy by a far-right clique bent on total seizure of power. This has proven entirely unnecessary. Congress has been obliging, Democratic resistance token at best, and the ICE/CBP state of exception completely satisfactory within its generous spatial constraints. A permanent regime of racialized state terrorism has once again proven fully compatible with the cherished norms of the American republic.
The details of ICE terror are so on-the-nose they would seem downright corny as fiction. This starred-and-striped Gestapo now targets not only schools, workplaces, and homes—as it had done, of course, under Democratic as well as Republican presidencies—but immigration offices themselves, the very places once meant to offer the way out of hiding and persecution. This is a fundamental shift in the immigration order, to the point of making the whole apparatus incoherent except as a screen for an explicit program of social cleansing. It is as if the Inquisition had branched out from burning unrepentant Jews and heretics and started cutting people down as they stood before the altar to receive the Host.
In the face of this, all we have found to cling to is DACA. It would be hard to find a law more emblematic of Obama-era liberalism—and not just because it relied on the fantasy of a powerful and lasting Democratic executive to sustain it until Congress eventually came around. The central arguments around DACA were soteriological ones: the innocence of those brought to America as children, their good works as measured in startups and college degrees, their faith in America as exemplified by a lack of non-English language skills or social contacts in their birth countries. These weighty claims entitled Dreamers only to a kind of purgatory, not quite the paradise of the native-born or legal-immigrant elect. But at least they wouldn’t join their parents, condemned by this framing as willful criminals who knew precisely what they were doing when they trespassed against God’s kingdom, in the inferno of the detention centers.
I do not mean to adopt the facile pose of the leftist critic for whom all accommodation to the reality of the fallen world is just so much cowardice or betrayal. The program allowed hundreds of thousands of people who would have otherwise lived in fear to enjoy some fraction of the peace and security the rest of us take for granted. But we should be clear that the gesture that bestowed this dispensation also confirmed as a natural moral truth an immigration regime that was in actual fact artificial, immoral, and unjust, a regime that made targets out of millions of desperate people fleeing countries devastated by humanitarian intervention and globally mobile capital in the service of American empire. Worse, it was a dispensation whose moral claims were easily ignored when the interests of the Democrats’ corporate backers made surrender preferable to a continued budget showdown. The Democratic congressional leadership caved on it so swiftly, it was as if they never really believed in that kind of redemption in the first place.
Meanwhile the list of targets has expanded to include us, increasingly conditional “legals.” ICE now openly threatens naturalized citizens with revocation. Whether this will result in more than a handful of actual cases is almost irrelevant; it is simply another weapon in the arsenal of anti-immigrant terror, albeit a subtler one than most. The constant document checks in buses and trains, whose racialized criteria are evident in cell phone videos, build on the methods of Joe Arpaio to paint crosshairs on people of color regardless of documentation status. Digging up decades-old legal troubles (once a practice cited with horror by anticommunist critics of Stalinism) grows more popular as a deportation technique. More such disruptive innovations are undoubtedly on their way, especially since local ICE officials are finding creative ways to profit on the side from the helplessness of their victims.
As the lines between immigrants and white native-born Americans become drawn more and more starkly, the so-called Resistance is less ideologically coherent than ever. Prospective 2020 Democratic candidates jockey to out-left each other with token gestures that find no purchase in the rest of the party. A landslide in the 2018 midterms is offered as the solution, as if the repressive power of the executive branch hadn’t been shown by Obama himself to be unconstrainable by congressional oversight. Promises of blue-state sanctuary are steamrolled with impunity by the ICE apparatus. Whatever political initiative remains is consumed by the spectacle of the Mueller investigation, whose hypothetical best-case denouement is deferred so far into the future that it works as a tranquilizer rather than a stimulant.
It is depressing, but unsurprising, that Beltway liberals and centrists have proven remarkably flexible in adapting to the new climate around immigration. They have few compunctions about deploying anti-immigrant arguments, as long as their targets are Russians (bizarrely regarded in their demonology as a favored population for Trump when in fact he has made visas almost unobtainable for them). Writing in Politico, legal theorist Eric Posner has sketched out a more original new direction: individually sponsored guest-worker visas that offer every red-blooded American the chance to play a Gulf national with a staff of defenseless, servile domestics. In the long term, it is not hard to imagine the outlines of a liberal compromise with the new regime—ICE without a wall, a stable immigrant population so terrorized it is incapable of offering resistance to exploitation by bosses, a favored class of native-born workers themselves stripped of labor protections but reassured by their immunity from xenophobic persecution.
It is harder for me to write a rousing conclusion now than it was last year. Temptations mount to cling to the life raft of racial and socioeconomic privilege and float off to the horizon of despondency. But the fact remains that the only alternative to the horror of the widening catastrophe, today as it was one year ago, is more solidarity, more action from below, more organizing. As the pool of allowable targets expands, so must the grounds for common action. Abolishing ICE, now a bare minimum political demand, must also mean abolishing prisons; protecting Dreamers must also mean protecting their parents; fighting the Wall must also mean fighting the borders that it enforces.
It is here that I see signs of hope. No matter how venal the “liberal media” has been in accommodating the Trump regime, reporters continue to needle ICE simply by registering its abuses. The agency’s 2017 annual report whined about “numerous stories and allegations . . . falsely accusing ICE of conducting indiscriminate raids and sweeps.” These stories seem to be having some resonance, though poll numbers for open borders, as usual, remain bleak. Our task is now to make a single, simple point. There is no humane border regime, just as there is no humane abortion ban. The border will always tear parents from children, carers from charges, longtime residents from the only communities they’ve ever known. It may do it faster or slower, with ostentatious brutality or bureaucratic drag, but it will always do it. Trump is gambling that Americans will embrace the brutal version, as they’ve done so many times in the past. If they do, will we be enough to stop them?
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