You hear the stories every day — so many that it’s hard to keep track.
The middle-aged couple that’s been living peacefully in Brooklyn for two decades and decided on July 4 to visit their daughter and their son-in-law — an Army sergeant who just returned from duty in Afghanistan — at his military base in upstate New York, only to be turned over to ICE and detained, facing possible deportation to their native Mexico.
The 63-year-old Peruvian-born grandmother in Miami who became a U.S. citizen a couple of years ago after the resolution of a legal dust-up over her minor role in preparing paperwork for her fraudster boss (she’d cooperated fully in the probe) but now has U.S. agents trying to take that citizenship away — one target of a new Team Trump task force targeting naturalized Americans.
The Guatemalan mother who rafted across the Rio Grande this spring with her 8-year-old son, only to get snagged by the U.S. Border Patrol and see her son taken away from her just before she was put on a plane back to Guatemala — not knowing her child’s whereabouts and pleading that “I can’t go without my son!”
Individually, these tales of stepped-up enforcement against migrants — not just those who’ve recently crossed the border but these new efforts to pin fraud allegations on naturalized citizens, the bungled end of a military program that could deport scores of would-be troops who thought they were becoming citizens, and ICE raids scooping up undocumented migrants with no criminal records — are a slow steady drip, sparking eruptions of Twitter rage until the next horror story emerges hours later.
It’s only when you do the math that you realize the wars that President Trump and his hard-line right-wing zealot advisers like Stephen Miller are waging on so many different fronts will actually make a dent in what what social scientists say has animated so many of the voters who put Trump into office in 2016: Anxiety over whites becoming a minority in the United States by the middle of the century.
Cumulatively, these nightmares of popular restaurateurs plucked from their all-American communities or 6-year-old kids screaming out for their mother add up to something that a nation that once branded itself with the welcoming gaze of the Statue of Liberty has rarely seen: A slow-motion and cruel — if non-lethal — campaign of ethnic cleansing.
So far, most of the anger sparked by Trump’s immigration policies — opposed by about 59 percent of Americans, according to the latest polls — has been moral outrage, and understandably so. Trump launched his campaign by identifying Mexican migrants as “rapists” and now lards every recent rally with attacks on the relatively small number of Honduran gang members as “animals,” during a rap where he seems to be referring more broadly to all immigrants. The name calling and over-the-top efforts to spotlight immigrant crime — which actually happens at a lower rate than overall U.S. crime — mirrors to a shocking extent that tactics used by the Nazis in the 1930s (for example, Hitler’s minions went to great pains to publicize any crimes allegedly committed by Jews).
“It’s the apparent underlying premise that makes this new effort so troublesome: the idea that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here,” wrote Masha Gessen, the brilliant New Yorker essayist who herself found refuge in the United States when fleeing Vladimir Putin’s political repression and persecution of Russia’s LGBT community.
During his campaign and in the early months of his presidency, Trump’s signature immigration move was his proposed border wall with the ever-growing price tag of $25 billion — an effort to turn a frenzied, hatched-by-Cambridge-Analytica campaign chant of “Build the wall!” into government policy, an extreme take on the vaguer notion of “enhanced border security” that many Americans say they support. Less attention was paid to the notion of pushing humans who were already here back over the border, as well as the realities of what stepped-up law enforcement might look like.
Here’s just a few of the ways that Trump is making America less diverse and more white, by keeping people out or removing folks against their will. For example:
- Trump reversed protected status that had been granted to those who’d fled natural disasters or other deprivations from places like El Salvador (estimated range from 57,000 to 200,000 people) and Haiti (59,000 people).
- Arrests of undocumented immigrants by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, spiked by 41 percent during Trump’s first year in office, or about 40,000 people — and the vast majority of that increase involved arrests of those with no criminal record, who were explicitly not targeted by ICE during Barack Obama’s presidency.
- The United States accepted some 97,000 refugees in the last year of the Obama administration but after sharp restrictions imposed by Trump is on track to take only about 21,000 in 2018 — virtually none, for example, from war-torn Syria where seven years of warfare, including thousands of bombs dropped from American planes, have left millions desperate for a safe haven.
That doesn’t even include the larger and more fraught issues. Unauthorized border crossings into the United States dropped sharply in 2017 and when they began to creep upwards this year, Trump and his attorney general Jeff Sessions greenlighted the “zero tolerance” policy that has netted thousands, broke apart families and virtually shut down asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Trump’s as-yet-unrealized plan to end so-called DACA protection for “Dreamers” brought to America as children has cast a cloud over another 800,000 young people currently here.
And the even bigger kahuna when it comes to making America less welcoming and less diverse would be curbing legal immigration — something that Team Trump has demanded as part of any deal that might restore protection for those “Dreamers.” The curbs under a more merit-based system backed by the Trump administration could reduce legal immigration into the United States by as many as 500,000 people a year — although the odds that Trump can actually get this measure through Congress before his GOP majority shrinks or disappears are growing longer.
Still, even without that deal on legal immigration, the impact of the many restrictions that Trump has already successfully pulled off could reduce the numbers of migrants living in or entering the United States — from Central America, the Middle East, Asia, and other mostly non-white corners of the globe — by at least hundreds of thousands and quite possibly in the low millions over the course of his presidency.
Is it fair to use a harsh term like “ethnic cleansing” — which many Americans associate with the brutal and often deadly policies of despots like Serbia’s war criminals of the 1990s — to talk about what’s happening right here, right now?
The United Nations defines ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.” It’s hard to look at the big picture of Trump’s policies on refugees and harsh immigration enforcement and not conclude the goal is to make America more ethnically homogeneous.
In a harsh, realpolitick sense, Trump’s policies may be the only last-gasp long-term survival policy for his Republican Party, which has shown itself each election cycle to be increasing older and more white even as it’s held onto Congress and regained the White House. But immigration brutality is also the policy most guaranteed to earn the continued political gratitude of the conservative base that elected him.
Since 2016, several academic studies have shown concern over immigration and racial resentment were much bigger drivers for Trump voters than anxiety over jobs or the economy. Hamilton College professor Philip Klinkner found that while 58 percent of 2012 Mitt Romney voters wanted to limit all immigration — legal or illegal — that number spiked to 74 percent for Trump voters. “Trump won in 2016,” Klinkner wrote recently, “by mobilizing the minority of Americans with anti-immigration views” — although the impact of his actual policies like family separation may motivate Trump’s foes for the 2018 election.
Penn political scientist Diana Mutz told the New York Times this spring that Trump voters feared “not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.” That is rising along with awareness of the demographic trend that by the mid-21st Century — perhaps as early as 2045 — whites are expected to become the minority in America. Trump’s cruel policies might delay that — but for how long?
The only potential good news — as the academic Klinkler pointed out in this essay — is that the harsh dog whistle of Trump’s xenophobia that only his supporters picked up in 2016 is now audible for all to hear. The road toward ethnic cleansing in America begins and ends at the same place: The ballot box. Please circle November 6 on your 2018 calendar.