Deportation Priorities in the Age of Trump

Two recent memorandums from the Trump administration outline broad, vague, and discretionary deportation guidelines that place almost all undocumented immigrants at risk, fail to address the urgent plight of refugees, and make our communities less safe.

During the first week of his administration, President Trump signaled his focus on heightened immigration enforcement with two executive orders about expanding deportation resources and building a border wall. (A third order initiated the now legally challenged and temporarily halted travel ban.) On February 21, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly followed up with two memorandums that vastly expand the definition of who is a priority for deportation and the speed with which they can be deported; in addition, they request an increase in the number Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol (BP) personnel. Though the administration has deflected questions about “mass deportation”—and the costs of such a plan would be highly prohibitive—it is clear that most of the 11 million undocumented individuals who live in the U.S. have greater reason to fear indiscriminate deportation, family separation, and unconsidered asylum claims.

Under the Obama administration, the number of deportations and separated families rose significantly, with the justification that criminals were being prioritized; now, the Trump administration is continuing on that path with a dramatically expanded definition of who is considered a criminal. The criteria can be widely interpreted to apply to almost any undocumented immigrant, creating worrisome opportunities for violations of immigrant rights and obstructions to asylum seekers. Combined with pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric, these definitions attempt to paint all immigrants as criminals when, in fact, there are much lower levels of crime among immigrants than among native-born Americans.

Here are the deportation priorities as specified in the memos, followed by bolded explanations of how they can be interpreted. Deportation priorities include undocumented individuals who:

  1. have been convicted of any criminal offense;
    No specifics are outlined, so someone who commits fraud is treated the same way as someone who commits murder, and those picked up for minor infractions, such as a traffic ticket, would be detained for violating immigration law by being in the country illegally.
  2. have been charged with any criminal offense that has not been resolved;
    This criterion flies in the face of our judicial presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.”
  3. have committed acts that constitute a chargeable offense;
    No statute of limitations here, and presumably, being in the country illegally would meet this criterion as would bringing one’s children into the U.S. which would be considered smuggling or human trafficking.
  4. have engaged in fraud or willful representation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency;
    This would include use of fake social security numbers in order to obtain work.
  5. have abused any program related to the receipt of government benefits;
    So parents who have received food stamps or government medical services for their children who may themselves be U.S. citizens would be targeted.
  6. are subject to a final order of removal but have not complied with their legal obligation to leave the United States; or
    This would include individuals who feel compelled to stay in the U.S. to be with family or raise their children.
  7. in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.
    This phrasing leaves room for such wide discretion, subjectivity, and potential prejudice as to invite, even sanction, abuse.

The memos also lay out plans to publicize crimes by undocumented individuals; disregard privacy protections of immigrants; hire 10,000 ICE and 5,000 BP agents; deputize local police forces for immigration enforcement; build new detention facilities; send Central American immigrants to Mexico while they await hearings; expedite deportations; and discourage asylum seekers (a violation of international law). Another memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinds the Obama administration’s order to phase out private prison contracts. Though these directives may face legal challenges and will require congressional appropriations to implement, they are a jarring response to the need for practical and just immigration reform, and the KBI stands with other migrant aid and advocacy groups in denouncing what is essentially an inhumane, rash, and ill-considered assault on human rights and immigrant families.

Moreover, these new guidelines do little to enhance the security of the United States, or the well-being or safety of communities throughout the country. Already, a major crackdown of ICE raids has resulted in the apprehension of close to 700 undocumented people—some of whom are being detained and some who have already been deported—devastating families and disrupting communities. ICE is arresting individuals near and in previously avoided sensitive areas, like churches, shelters, and hospitals. The fear among undocumented immigrants has escalated to such an extent that some have stayed home from work, kept their children from school, and strategically plan shopping, medical appointments, and other errands so that if arrested, another adult is home to care for the children.

In addition, more expedited removals (which eliminate deportation hearings) mean that credible fear claims for asylum seekers will be poorly investigated or handled, already a major human rights concern, and raise questions of due process violations. The deputization of local law enforcement in a climate of fear means that undocumented immigrants will be reluctant to report crimes or suspicious behaviors, a danger to the community at large. And as if the social costs of fractured families, neighborhoods, and wider communities were not troubling enough, the economic costs of escalated deportations mean disrupted local economies, and a loss of up $12 billion in tax revenues and $13 billion in social security paid by undocumented immigrants (though they collect only $1 billion in benefits).  If all 11 million undocumented immigrants were deported, U.S. GDP would decrease by a staggering $1.6 trillion. Finally, as more people are deported to Mexico or sent there to await hearings (another directive in the memos), our relationship with Mexico would become further strained.

Altogether, the executive orders and Homeland Security memos are a disturbing turn away from the values of human dignity, family unity, and compassion that many Americans live by and that are the foundation of the KBI’s mission. Their swift action and implementation are equally troubling, placing the immigrant families and lives at risk without due consideration of how to shape true immigration reform that protects asylum seekers, keeps families together, and offers options to those who yearn for better lives. Now, more than ever, the work of the Kino Border Initiative remains critical in aiding those most in need and providing a voice for those who must increasingly hide in the shadows.

Embed from Getty Images. Demonstrators outside the First Unitarian Church in Denver gather in support of Jeannette Vizguerra, an undocumented mother of three who has received sanctuary there. February 18, 2017. Photo by Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images.

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