In a sense, you have to hand it to President Trump, who played his cards close to the vest when it came to what he'd actually do regarding the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in America. For much of the 2016 campaign, observers noted that Trump spoke of a "mass deportation force" and extrapolated that if elected he might try to eject all 11 million in short order. Closer to Election Day, the then-GOP insisted that he'd only move aggressively against undocumented immigrants who'd committed crimes, which he still estimated at the sizable 2-3 million and which would still be a chaotic operation on the scale of World War II's Japanese interment.
For example, here's what Trump said in November 2015 about a "mass deportation force": "We're going to do it in a very humane fashion. Believe me. I have a bigger heart than you do. We're going to do it in a very humane fashion."
In the first month of the Trump administration, there's been nothing that anyone could really call a massive deportation army taking shape. But in the last few days, there's been a sudden surge of alarming immigration enforcement stories like this one:
AUSTIN — Federal immigration agents went to the El Paso County Courthouse last week and arrested an undocumented woman who had just received a protective order alleging that she was a victim of domestic violence.
The agents apparently detained the woman Feb. 9 after receiving a tip, possibly from her alleged abuser, whom they already had in custody, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said.
The detention has alarmed Bernal and other county officials who fear that the arrest will scare undocumented victims of domestic abuse into staying with their abusers for fear of being deported and separated from their children or other family members.
However, a criminal complaint on file with the U.S. District Court in El Paso indicates that a person of the same name as the alleged victim might have a history of deportation and domestic violence.
The story came out a day or two ago and has been picked up by national outlets like the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, guaranteeing that word of the woman's detention will become known and talked about in immigrant communities from coast-to-coast. And it's just one of a series of similar stories that have made the rounds that week that have shaken migrants and their advocates by raising questions about who is now getting deported in Donald Trump's America, and why. Consider:
-- The case I wrote about earlier this week in Phoenix, in which a mother of two who's been in America since she was 14 checked in with federal officers -- as she'd done more than a half dozen times during the Obama years -- only this time she was detained and then deported across the border to Mexico.
-- In Seattle, immigrant agents detained a 23-year-man who'd been brought here from Mexico as a child and recently given a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program that was instituted under Barack Obama and which is at least technically still in place.
-- In Virginia, agents from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, stopped a group of six Latino men as they were leaving a church sanctuary where they'd spent the night to stay warm during a recent cold snap. Two of the men were detained -- even though the stop seemed to go against a long-standing ICE policy not to target "sensitive areas" such as churches, schools, and hospitals.
This is happening amid a slew of news reports about sweeping immigrant raids and checkpoints using unmarked cars in more than a dozen U.S. cities. ICE officials insist there's nothing unusual about the sweeps and there's evidence to support them, especially since sustained raids and other operations against undocumented immigrants under Obama caused some critics to call him "deporter-in-chief."
But in many U.S. cities, it feels different right now. The fear is palpable. "Every time so much as a white guy with a clipboard is walking around, everyone runs into their apartments and locks the doors," one immigration advocate told the Associated Press.
Amid this haze of chaos and confusion, Trump's actual immigration strategy is now clear. And that strategy is...chaos and confusion. In other words, why deport 2-3 million people, which would be impossibly expensive, unwieldy, and time-consuming when you can deport a few dozen under murky circumstances and rules, and still get large newspaper headlines and cable TV coverage? And those headlines a) will sow fear and unrest in immigrant neighborhoods and b) show the 46 Percenters who voted for Trump and his cheerleaders in right-wing talk radio that the president is keeping his promise to get tough in dealing what what they call "the illegals."
And the most interesting part of this is that Trump didn't need to hire a massive "deportation army" after all. All he needed for this strategy is just to unleash the pent-up furies of the ICE agents that America already had -- a group of rank-and-file lawmen who largely supported Trump in the election and had been champing at the bit during the Obama years to be unleashed in the ways we're now seeing in this week's news reports.
Linda Greenhouse, the former New York Times reporter, now an opinion writer, explained it all today in a particularly insightful op-ed:
Clearly, with President Trump's executive orders having expanded the category of immigrants deemed worth pursuing and deporting, the gloves are off. There's been plenty of news coverage of this development, but few reminders of the context in which the pursuers have been freed from previous restraints.
So it's worth noting that the union representing some 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents actually endorsed Mr. Trump in September, the first time the union endorsed a candidate for president. In an inflammatory statement posted on the Trump campaign's website, Chris Crane, president of the union, the National ICE Council, complained that under President Obama, "our officers are prevented from enforcing the most basic immigration laws." The statement went on to say that while Mr. Trump had pledged in a meeting to "support ICE officers, our nation's laws and our members," Hillary Clinton's immigration plan was "total amnesty plus open borders."
That everything in that statement except for the reference to Mr. Trump was untrue is not the point. (Far from failing to enforce the law, the Obama administration deported more than 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year, and Mr. Trump's Democratic rival endorsed neither total amnesty nor open borders.) Rather, the statement is evidence of how openly these law enforcement officers have been chafing at the bit to do their jobs as they please.
And chafing for a long time: back in 2012, Mr. Crane was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Obama administration's deferral of deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children. The claim was that the program put agents in a position of either failing to enforce immigration law as written or suffering reprisals at work for not adhering to the new policy.
No doubt, the gloves are off. It turns out you don't need to deport 11 million people to create a reign of fear and terror, but just enough folks in enough Kafka-esque confrontations with agents of the federal government to make millions of people afraid to answer the doorbell or go to the corner store for a quart of milk.