It’s tempting to chew on President Trump’s ‘go back to where you came from’ tweets directed at a number of U.S.-born women in Congress, but honestly, that’s sadly not surprising. He has lowered the level of presidential rhetoric to a place we never imagined, so while it’s shocking, it’s not really news.
More noteworthy is the long-promised Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweep has not yet materialized. When Trump announced it via Twitter, he promised that millions of undocumented immigrants would be deported—a number that ICE adjusted into the thousands before detaining significantly fewer than that on the weekend. In New Orleans, concerns about Hurricane Barry might account for the lack of activity, as would the community and political support shown for the city's immigrant population. But Barry didn’t get anywhere near Denver, Colorado, a city scheduled for ICE raids, and observers there didn’t see any signs of unusual immigration enforcement activity. ICE did detain two people in Houston and tried unsuccessfully to apprehend three more in New York City on the weekend, but it’s not clear that those incidents were part of any coordinated, larger action.
ICE won’t clarify the situation. According to an official statement, “Due to law-enforcement sensitivities and the safety and security of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, the agency will not offer specific details related to enforcement operations,” according to the statement.
That ambiguity is not only departmental policy but the point of Trump’s announcement. One of Trump’s successes has been his ability to spread fear. His opponents fear the damage he can do to American democracy, while he has given his supporters reasons to fear immigrants. His threats of ICE action incite fear in the immigrant community—in undocumented immigrants who are worried that they are targets, and in those around them who are anxious that they will lose loved ones or somehow get caught up as collateral damage in ICE raids.
As numerous first-hand reports with undocumented immigrants show, the threat has successfully created an atmosphere of dread that forces them to move through their lives with great caution, and it has prompted them and opponents in the United States and around the world to wonder just how far the country has backed away from the social promises it was founded on. Since the latter doesn’t appear to bother Trump or his administration, it’s easy to imagine that he would consider the threat of ICE raids as much of a success as actual raids.
Since everything he does has to be seen through the lens of re-election efforts, the threatened raids send a message to his base that he is serious about reducing the presence of immigrants in American culture, which recommends him to some voters as much as it disqualifies him for others. The one message is doesn’t send is the one he has tried to send since then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in 2018, if not before. The Trump Administration has used detention, inhumane treatment, narrowed asylum definitions, and threatened tariffs to signal to those in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that they should stay home and not try to seek asylum or any other kind of status in the U.S. On Monday, the administration tried again to send that message by declaring that starting Tuesday, asylum seekers who pass through another country en route to the United States will not be accepted. That measure will likely be challenged in court, but it’s a clear effort to tell residents of the “Northern Triangle” countries that there is no point in making the journey across Mexico to get to the U.S. because they’ll simply be sent back to Mexico.
There are problems with the administration’s plan, starting with Mexico not being safer for migrants that the countries that they’re fleeing. It also has yet to address the poverty, violence and corruption that prompted people to flee in the first place, a situation so hopeless that mothers with children would risk the journey across Mexico or send their children on it. Deportees returned to their native countries find the job market as bad as when they left, the government just as corrupt and the violence just as oppressive. Rather than help address those conditions, the Trump Administration has sided with the government in Guatemala against a UN-supported corruption monitoring agency. Its efforts to crack down on migrants in America will almost certainly reduce the amount of money that those working send back to their families, and the struggling economies of those countries have come to rely on that money. In short, Trump's efforts actually make the situation worse in the countries that people are fleeing.
Those who are concerned need to let this administration know that they do not support these actions being taken on their behalf. Joining the Lights for Liberty protest on Friday is a good start, but efforts need to extend beyond that. They need to let their legislators know that the willingness to help those in need is a core commitment that America makes to itself and those who need help. They need to send the message that a country never looks more fearful than when it works to instill fear in others.