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5 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Encouraged by a racist president, US immigration officers are sowing fear, anxiety and panic

Putting Trump in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is the political equivalent of putting a kid in charge of a candy store.

By Mehdi Hasan

“I am the least racist person anybody is going to meet,” the former Apprentice host Donald Trump told former Celebrity Apprentice winner Piers Morgan in Davos last month. This “least racist person”, lest we forget, has called Mexican immigrants rapists, compared Syrian refugees to snakes, suggested Haitians all have Aids, claimed Nigerians live in huts and said that African countries were shitholes.

The big problem for migrants and minorities in the US, however, is not just that Trump is a blatant racist but that he is now in command of what the Nation magazine has called “the most sophisticated and well-funded human-expulsion machine in the history of the country”.

At the centre of this “expulsion machine” is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Putting Trump, the hero of the Ku Klux Klan, in charge of this law enforcement agency is the political equivalent of putting a kid in charge of a candy store. Trump wants black and brown undocumented immigrants gone from the US; ICE specialises in finding, detaining and deporting black and brown undocumented immigrants. Theirs is a match made in “alt-right” heaven.

Is it any wonder, then, that Trump pledged to triple the number of ICE officers during the election campaign and signed an executive order authorising the hiring of “10,000 additional immigration officers” within five days of his inauguration? Or that, before his election, Trump received the endorsement of the union representing ICE officers and staff – the first time the union endorsed a candidate for president?

Since coming to office, Trump has also lavished praise on Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, joking about how people say, “he looks very nasty, he looks very mean. I said, that’s what I’m looking for.” Homan has repaid the compliment. “This president has done more for border security and public safety than any of the six presidents I’ve worked for,” the ICE boss told Fox News in December.

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In an earlier interview with Fox News, Homan also thanked Trump for “taking the handcuffs off the men and women of the border patrol and ICE”. The removal of these (metaphorical) handcuffs on ICE has, perhaps unsurprisingly, only increased the number of (real) handcuffs slapped on the wrists of undocumented immigrants. Overall, across the US, deportations are slightly down – but arrests have shot up. According to ICE, the agency made “110,568 arrests… an increase of 40 per cent”, between Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 and September 2017. Over the same period, “removals that resulted from an ICE arrest increased by 37 per cent, nearly offsetting the historically low number of border apprehensions.”

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Some context: Barack Obama was no friend of undocumented immigrants either. There’s a reason he was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” by immigration advocacy groups: Obama deported a record 2.5 million undocumented immigrants over his two terms in office. Nevertheless, the number of deportations was starting to fall towards the end of his presidency and, on paper if not always in practice, the Obama administration prioritised the removal of “convicted criminals and threats to public safety, border security, and national security”.

For Trump, however, there is no such priority: all undocumented immigrants are fair game for ICE. As Sandra Hernandez, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has noted: “The Trump deportation guidelines are extreme in their scope compared with the priorities set as far back as the late 1990s.” Under this current president, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year, “ICE appears to have decided that when it cannot find serious criminals, it will protect us from the depredations of students, nannies and strawberry pickers.”

Indeed. Despite all Trump’s talk of “rapists” and “killers”, consider some of the undocumented immigrants targeted by ICE since Trump’s inauguration. A woman arrested as she exited a courtroom in El Paso, Texas, after seeking a protective order against a violent ex-boyfriend. A 19-year-old high school student taken into custody in New York, hours before his senior prom and a week before his graduation. A teenager seized from a children’s shelter in Los Angeles on the day of his 18th birthday. A ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy detained after undergoing emergency gall bladder surgery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Why should a self-proclaimed law enforcement agency expend precious resources arresting, detaining and trying to deport such people? Who have committed no serious crimes and pose no threat to anyone? Who are trying to contribute to US society, as millions of immigrants – both documented and undocumented – have before them?

And why is ICE, which once claimed to be an agency focused on terrorists and gangsters, now intercepting ambulances? Surveilling churches? Staking out courthouses? Launching pre-dawn raids on 7-Elevens?

The only answer is the obvious answer: to incite fear, anxiety and panic within immigrant communities. The truth is that ICE, with the encouragement and blessing of a racist president, has embarked upon a reign of terror. And don’t take my word for it. “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Homan told a congressional committee in June last year. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” The ICE director later added, in an interview with CNN, that undocumented immigrants “should be afraid”.

You could say that’s the nightmarish motto of Trump’s America. Be afraid. Be very afraid. 

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration