President Trump is spending his first full week in office fulfilling his campaign promises to his nativist base. This week, he signed two executive orders during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security that together will require construction of a border wall, increased border patrol, intensified crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and withdrawal of federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Condemnation of the orders from immigration reform advocates and civil liberties groups has been swift and harsh. Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, calls the orders “alt-right, dog-whistle executive directives” that would have a “long-term cost to the soul and safety of our nation.”
What’s more, advocates say, the orders are a solution in search of a problem. Contrary to Trump’s portrayal of a surge of undocumented immigrants crossing the border unabated, net migration from Mexico “is at its lowest point in history,” says Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza. Building the wall, in addition to being ineffective, is a “grave symbolic error for a country that has always been a beacon of freedom to the world,” she says.
Trump has further provoked a confrontation with Mexico by insisting that he can force it to pay for the wall – after American taxpayers have footed the bill. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has said Mexico will not, in fact, pay for the wall, announced Thursday morning that he had canceled a scheduled meeting at the White House next week.
Adding to the alarm over the two executive orders Trump signed is a leaked draft of a third executive order that that appears to be a version of Trump’s promised Muslim ban. According to the leaked draft, that order would institute an immediate, four-month halt to the entry of refugees, an end to the Syrian refugee resettlement program, and restrictions on the entry of people traveling or immigrating from countries the draft order calls “of particular concern.” It also calls for the collection of information about “foreign-born individuals” in the United States, which could include naturalised U.S. citizens. The White House has not said whether or when Trump will sign the order, or some version of it.
While many advocates are not commenting on the document while it is still in draft, others are reacting to the possibility that Trump will sign it or something like it. Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS – founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia, and now actively resettling Syrian refugees – calls the draft order “obscene,” “offensive” and “an outrage.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Hetfield says, that the leaked draft is being circulated the same week as Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on Friday. “The irony must be lost on him, but the entire Refugee Convention came out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and he’s abdicating American responsibility when it comes to refugees. It’s disgusting.”
Trump even faces criticism from a core segment of his base: evangelicals. Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, which also resettles refugees, calls the draft order an “overreaction” that “further traumatizes the very people who are running from the terror we’re trying to stop.”
Reacting to language in the leaked draft that “the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry and hatred … or those who would oppress members of one race, one gender, or sexual orientation,” Ingrid Mattson, a prominent Muslim leader and academic, asked on Twitter, “What will he do about the Americans who do this?”
Such questions appear to be of little consequence to the new president, who spoke at the immigration order signing at DHS with the same dog-whistles that energized his base from the start of his campaign. He portrayed an America under siege from an endless flow of terror and crime across the border, and pledged to “restore the rule of law in the United States.”
“Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders,” he said, praising Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents, and calling DHS “a law enforcement agency.”
Laws, said Trump ominously, “will be enforced, and enforced strongly.”
La Raza’s Murguía says that by “setting in motion a mass deportation force” and punishing cities that protect the undocumented from deportation, Trump is creating the “potential to unleash a lot of chaos and fear.”
Sanctuary cities, she says, contrary to Trump’s insinuations, do not harbour criminals. With the executive order threatening to withhold federal funds from cities that refuse to turn over undocumented residents to immigration authorities, Trump is attempting to force local police to become part of his immigration force, seeking out and turning over undocumented residents even if they have not been convicted of a crime. These provisions are likely to provoke litigation by localities against the federal government.
Trump’s actions also are having an immediate effect on residents of border communities. In the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, close to the Mexico border, people are “terrified,” says Michael Seifert, the coordinator for the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a community organizing group that works with and advocates for immigrants.
Residents fear the coming intensified crackdown, says Seifert, as they are already subject to questioning from the Customs and Border Control agents patrolling their communities. Seifert and other advocates point to deaths and injuries to residents at the hands of border control agents; the Southern Borders Community Coalition, which maintains data on these incidents, says that 46 people have died “as the result of an encounter with U.S. border agents” since 2010. An October 2016 investigation in The Guardian documented the increasing militarisation of border control, and how it has led to abuses.
One of the executive orders Trump signed calls for hiring 5,000 additional border control officers, and orders the DHS secretary to “allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” The other requires the hiring of an additional 10,000 immigration officers.
“Expanding the size and power of security forces in the border area,” says Southern Borders Community Coalition Director Christian Ramirez in a statement, “will further erode the freedoms and rights of tens of millions of people who call the southern border communities home.”
Trump’s plans and threats to detain more undocumented immigrants, says Vicki Gaubeca, director for the Regional Center for Border Rights at the ACLU of New Mexico, “benefit no one except private prison operators and politicians trying to score some political point.”
Seifert cites an instance of a mother, who was undocumented, being picked up by border control as she walked her children to school, and subsequently deported.
“A family split up on a school day,” he says. “That happens all the time.”
Now, with Trump’s orders, he adds, “there’s a generalized fear across the community” of agents who are “already out of control.”
Other civil liberties advocates say millions more fear increased profiling and intimidation at the internal checkpoints, located within 100 miles of the Mexico border, that are intended to catch undocumented immigrants as they travel.
Gaubeca says the ACLU has “heard a lot of complaints from Latino and Hispanic families who have lived here for generation that they feel like they are being profiled at the checkpoints.”
She adds that these checkpoints nonetheless have been ineffective at catching undocumented immigrants. “Less than one percent of people detained for being undocumented are detained at internal checkpoints,” she says.
At his DHS appearance, though, Trump’s attention is on pushing false, fear-mongering claims about undocumented immigrants’ supposed propensity to criminality. He has on hand members of the Remembrance Project, a group that draws attention to the family members of people murdered by undocumented immigrants. Since the summer of 2015, Trump has exploited the tragic stories of the Remembrance Project as purported evidence of the need for an immigration crackdown.
But in the weeks after Trump’s 2015 presidential campaign announcement, the Washington Post concluded that Trump had made “false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime.” The data, the newspaper’s fact-checker concluded, “are not indicative of general crime trends of non-citizens,” citing Congressional Research Service findings that “the vast majority of unauthorised immigrants do not fit in the category that fits Trump’s description: aggravated felons, whose crimes include murder, drug trafficking or illegal trafficking of firearms.”
From his border town, Seifert also counters Trump’s claims about increased crime caused by undocumented immigrants. He says Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, the largest towns in the Rio Grande Valley, are safe communities, and that rather than fearing crime from undocumented immigrants, residents fear border control officers who might profile them, detain them or tear their families apart.
In the wake of the executive orders, Seifert says his organisation is helping residents prepare as if for a natural disaster, assembling “very practical survival methods,” including provisions for what will happen to their children if they are separated.
“We do it during hurricane season – now we’re doing it for border control season,” he says. “It’s not a normal life.”