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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.

“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.

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.”

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. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist