There is a lot of chatter in the media, and among immigrant rights groups, about whether Trump will—once he is sworn in on Jan. 20—immediately make good on his campaign promise to deport 2 million to 3 million “criminal” undocumented immigrants.
To begin with, let’s make clear what it means for an undocumented immigrant to be labeled a “criminal” in the first place. You can’t get there simply by entering the United States without proper documents. That’s usually not a crime, if you’re not smuggling in anyone with you. Immigration law is based on civil law, and so violating it is a civil infraction.
But you are a criminal—in fact a “felon”—if you get caught here without papers and get deported, and then come back without permission a second time. That means, right now, all across the country, it’s very likely that Americans are letting into their homes, and onto their property, housekeepers, nannies, and gardeners who are technically “criminals.”
So an administration could move out of the country millions of undocumented immigrants who are perfectly harmless and then claim they were only deporting “criminals.” It’s been done.
There is also a panic. The immigrant community fears that Trump will keep another promise and revoke the paltry offering that was Obama’s chief accomplishment in the area of immigration reform: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
That program allowed more than 700,000 undocumented young people who were brought here involuntarily by their parents as children to get a two-year waiver from deportation and a work permit. But in the immigration debate, there’s no free lunch. And so, in order to get the benefit, these young people had to surrender to the authority of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency placed them under arrest, took their fingerprints, wrote down all their personal information such as their home address and the names and legal status of their parents and siblings, and then released them—at least for the time being.
Now many of these young people, the so-called DREAMers, are freaked out at the thought that Trump has the power to make them deportable again and knows exactly where to find them.
And so liberals are sounding the alarm. But it’s not fair to say that the dawn of the Trump administration is likely to bring back deportations of undocumented immigrants.
You can’t bring back something that never went away. As any immigration attorney can tell you, every single day in America, over the last eight years, scores of undocumented immigrants were put on buses or airplanes and shipped out of the country.
During the Obama administration, a record number of undocumented immigrants have been transported out of the United States—as many as 1,200 per day in fiscal year 2013. It’s a new world. Due to the election of Trump, we can now discuss this sort of thing in polite company. The last eight years have not been easy for liberals who supported Obama but still liked to think of themselves as pro-immigrant.
What did go away for much of the last eight years, and is now likely to come back under President Trump, are Latino advocacy groups like the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. After a long siesta during which they were afraid to criticize the de facto leader of their party, these Democratic-leaning groups that pretend to defend the nation’s 54 million Latinos are tanned, rested, and ready to take on President Trump and his administration.
Also expected to make a comeback is an independent watchdog media that aggressively holds accountable those who are hell-bent on removing scores of undocumented immigrants—as long as the people doing the removing are Republicans.
I remember when my former editor at CNN.com told me to stop writing columns on Obama’s deportations—which divided hundreds of thousands of families—and his covering of his tracks by spreading the falsehood that most of the folks being deported were violent criminals, including what Obama repeatedly called “gang-bangers.” They weren’t.
I thought it was a great story with a lovely rainbow hue—America’s first black president doing white working-class Americans a solid by purging the country of brown people. The editor thought that, given the disproportionate number of liberals at CNN, my columns might have a better chance of avoiding getting spiked if they steered clear of the topic.
Now, with Trump on his way to the White House, liberals have been freed from their partisan straitjacket. They’ve rediscovered the immigration issue, and—after an eight-year sabbatical—they’re suddenly concerned about what happens to those who are in this country illegally.
Still, maybe there is no reason to worry. After all, before his deportation juggernaut, Obama promised Latino voters and immigration activists that he would make immigration reform—including a path to citizenship for the undocumented—a top priority of his administration. He broke that promise.
Now maybe Trump will follow suit and walk back his promises to drop the hammer on undocumented immigrants—something that would please the business interests that help keep Republicans in control of Congress, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There may actually be some truth in the recent Saturday Night Live skit in which a future President Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, is told that some of his immigration promises will be tough to keep, so he simply shouts out: “Scrap it!”
We should expect a fence that gets marketed as “a wall.” And Trump has already rolled back his campaign line about making Mexico pay for it, conceding that the United States will pay for the barrier and ask Mexico to reimburse its neighbor for part of the cost. Good luck with that, amigo.
We should expect the swift removal of many of the estimated 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who are designated as “criminals,” but—down the line—also expect a Nixon goes to China-type plan to give millions of undocumented immigrants legal status but not citizenship, for fear that they might use the right to vote to punish Republicans for their behavior.
Lastly, we should expect Trump to scrap DACA but also create a new program under a different name that does much the same thing—that is, allow recipients to register with the government, avoid deportation, and get a temporary work permit.
I predict that the idea of deporting undocumented young people who only know one country as their own—this one—when those young people did nothing wrong because they were brought here by their parents will be a bridge too far for Trump. He has never said specifically that he wants to do this, only that those who are here without authorization should have to leave.
Despite his campaign bluster, expect Trump to pragmatically inch toward the center on immigration. This will not please those who inhabit the nativist wing of the Republican Party. And then it’ll be their turn to panic. I can’t wait to see that.