“Is one of the goals here mass deportation?” a reporter asked Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, on Tuesday, trying to get some clarification on just how broad the scope of President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration enforcement might be. Two implementation memorandums that the Department of Homeland Security had issued earlier in the day suggested that the breadth might be stunning, indeed. But Spicer didn’t see it that way. “No,” he replied, with a half-puzzled look, as though he were surprised that anyone might worry, for a moment, about how Trump might change not only the lives of the undocumented but also the lives of their family members and neighbors, and even the mission of law enforcement in this country.
“Not at all?” the reporter asked.
Spicer said that the press just wasn’t seeing the big picture. “What we have to get back to is understanding a couple of things,” he said, foremost among them being that the White House shouldn’t be choosing which people it would deport for violating immigration laws and which it would not. That reply, though, suggests that the correct answer to the reporter’s first question was “yes” or, at best, “maybe, eventually.” The status quo has involved setting priorities about whom to deport. There are so many undocumented people in the United States that there either have to be such priorities, or else a large scale refocussing toward mass deportation and, most likely, a far greater and more intrusive role for law enforcement in the lives of the documented and undocumented alike. Under the Obama Administration, the priority was people who had been convicted of dangerous crimes. The Trump executive order starts with the idea that criminal aliens are the problem, but then widens the definition of criminality and blurs its edges. The relevant passage in the D.H.S. memorandums on who will be a priority for deportation points to any undocumented people who:
(a) have been convicted of any criminal offense; (b) have been charged with any criminal offense that has not been resolved; (c) have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense; (d) have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency; (e) have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits; (f) are subject to a final order of removal but have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or (g) in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.
It is not just that you can be charged, but not convicted, and still be judged a danger. You can “otherwise” pose a risk, in the subjective judgment of an immigration officer—whose ultimate boss, the President, has made alarming and bigoted statements about the kind of people he regards as hazards. As is the case so often under Trump, “criminal” seems to mean almost anyone whom he or his supporters regard as frightening.
The vagueness of the provisions about misrepresentation before governmental agencies and having “abused” public benefits also raises the possibility that the executive orders will make families with one or more undocumented member less willing to seek all the services that they can for their children, who may be American citizens themselves. It is an injunction to live in the shadows. (President Trump has not yet repealed President Obama’s DACA order, protecting certain people brought here as children, and he claims to be conflicted about it, but there are indications that some revision, at least, is coming.) Spicer, like other members of the Trump Administration, also elided the question of whether the crime in question might simply be one’s presence in America, in violation of immigration laws. When asked, he talked about how the “No. 1 priority” was “people who pose a threat to this country,” but then reiterated that there ought to be no turning of a blind eye to violations of immigration laws, reminding reporters that “everybody who is here illegally is subject to removal at any time.” This is a mandate for, if not mass deportation, then mass uncertainty and fear. (It is telling that a D.H.S. official, speaking to reporters, advised against “panic.”)
And how would all those deportations be accomplished? The new orders also foresee a “surge” that would involve the hiring of thousands more immigration officers and judges; expedited deportation in many more cases (not just those of people apprehended near the border, newly arrived in the country, but of people who have been anywhere in America for as long as two years); and more plans for a wall, among other things. It also includes an effort to enlist local police officers in deportation efforts, something likely not only to damage community relations but to lead to an underreporting of crimes. How would a parent choose between reporting an act of violence against herself, which might result in a police officer asking for her papers, and possibly being separated from her family? Spicer spoke of taking the “shackles” off immigration enforcers, as if Obama had oppressed them. The orders and memorandums also envision many more immigration detention centers. They also remove privacy-law protections for undocumented people, a measure that would inevitably compromise the privacy of their American-citizen relatives and friends as well.
The guidance from the Department of Homeland Security comes at a time when the country is waiting for President Trump to issue yet another executive order related to who can be in America. This would be, effectively, the second draft of an order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees. The original version has been suspended, thanks to a temporary restraining order issued by a judge in Seattle, which was upheld by a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit, and is the subject of continuing legislation. One problem those judges saw with the order also appears to be present in the new orders on immigration enforcement: statements from the Trump Administration that dismissed concerns about the orders’ reach. In the case of the seven-country ban, for example, there had been a great deal of obfuscation about whether it would apply to green-card holders. (The text suggests that it does.) In the case of these orders, there is the large and lurking idea that immigrants in general are dangerous, even murderous threats—stealing jobs, stealing lives, the explanation for all that is wrong—and that if that danger is not manifest today, it will be tomorrow. When Trump sets “priorities,” he does so like a bully, trying to find who is weakest and least protected. The question is whether the neighbors of the undocumented will stand up for them, or look away.