As The Intercept‘s Ryan Devereaux pointed out last Thursday, Trump’s travel ban on people from a group of predominantly Muslim countries, selected on a somewhat questionable basis if the aim is to counter “terrorist threats”, together with the high theatre of his border wall project, distracted attention from two January 29 executive orders that hardened the enforcement of measures against immigrants already in place in the United States. Their consequences are now becoming apparent. In recent days ICE officials have picked up undocumented immigrants in their homes and workplaces in Arizona, California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and New York, and all the signs are that this is the beginning of something really big that will have devastating consequences not simply for individuals but for their families. The Mexican and Central American communities in the United States are now living in fear.
Obama was bad enough. His government not only deported record numbers of people, but he conscripted the Mexican government into doing his dirty work for him on the southern frontier in Guatemala. Just as Fortress Europe has tried to shift its border into Africa, the United States has turned Mexico’s southern border into a first line of defence, principally against people, including children, fleeing from the violence that US policy itself has created in Central America. Those who get across into Mexico become prey not only to organised crime but to Mexico’s own security forces, often working hand in glove with the criminals, but also engaging in rape and extortion on their own account. Migrant women, again including minors, who get trapped in Mexico are easy targets for sexual exploitation and trafficking networks that operate throughout the country (and sometimes beyond it). Donald Trump cannot be blamed for creating this misery in the first place, although his insistence that every undocumented migrant and refugee is a threat to his nation’s security will ensure its perpetuation.
But Trump’s executive orders made it clear that he meant to go much further than “Obama the deporter”. The definition of what makes an undocumented migrant a deportable criminal has been broadened further. One of the first victims of Trump’s tightening of the screw, whose case was reported in The Guardian, was a 36 years old mother of two (US citizens) who had lived in Arizona since the age of 14. Convicted of using a fake social security number at work, Guadalupe García de Rayos had spent years complying with an ICE order to check-in with the agency. On her last visit, with Trump’s new executive order in force, she was taken into custody, separated from her husband and children, and deported to Mexico. Under Obama, policy had been for people who presented no threat to public safety and had no criminal or gang connections to remain. As her own 14 years old daughter said, Guadalupe’s only crime was to use a false document so she could get work to support her kids. Her Honduran husband is also undocumented, and like his wife sees the USA as his country, the place where he went to school, married and raised his kids. Those kids now have no mother and there is no reason whatsoever to think that this cruelty makes the USA a safer place for anyone. Guadalupe’s arrest provoked a protest. It will not be the last.
Extending the deportation program on the lines that Trump has decreed will be costly for the taxpayer and very profitable for the private security-incarceration industry. There are not enough ICE officials to do the job, so state and local law enforcement officers will have to be deputised to support them, which increases the risk of gross human rights violations beyond the act of deportation itself. New detention facilities will have to be commissioned and the private sector is ready to step up to the plate. Asylum hearings are to be expedited within these facilities, and The Intercept reported that “Kathy Valerin, chief of staff at the Arlington Asylum Office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, put out a call for asylum officer volunteers to conduct screening interviews at two for-profit immigrant detention facilities in Arizona as part of an ongoing effort to support the president’s orders beginning this week“. The aim is clearly to expedite the removal of asylum seekers from the country.
So it seems to be full steam ahead on every front designed to make the United States a little more white and a lot more English-speaking again. There is, of course, a good deal of resistance from within the extensive humane and cosmopolitan sectors of US society. But Trump has also promised to inflict punitive cuts on federal funding for those US cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries (along with a good many US universities), and anti-deportation protestors can expect to be confronted by riot police as a “threat to national security”.
Because of its theatrical character and astronomical likely cost, not to mention the opportunity that it has provided to heap humiliation after humiliation on Mexico’s president, Trump’s border wall on Mexico’s northern frontier has acquired a symbolic importance that far exceeds its possible practical significance. But mass deportations are a truly serious and much more urgent matter. Lives will be uprooted, families broken up, and Mexico will find it difficult to cope with the social and economic consequences of large numbers of returned deportees. This is another major crisis in the making, despite the fact that Mexican net migration to the United States was actually diminishing before the peso started devaluing drastically and the domestic economy went into a nose dive.
But some institutions in Mexico are gearing up to face the challenge. I was particularly heartened by reading the news this morning that the Jesuit Universidad Iberoamericana (where two of my former students are professors) has committed itself to funding 1,500 scholarships for young deportees (including young people who return voluntarily to escape deportation), and will provide support for students hoping to enter both public and private universities and academic and technical courses. As I know only too well from my own research, it is often not at all easy for young people born in the United States to adjust to life in Mexico, and life in Mexico may have ever more downsides unless alternatives can be found to Mexico’s current economic dependency on the United States, more of a problem than ever given Trump’s economic policies. But perhaps there are grounds for hope in reflecting on what happened in Mexico during the 1930s, after the mass deportations and voluntary returns that followed the 1929 crash in the North. Even if it was limited in scope and not sustainable, this period did bring more radical change and a time of hope to post-revolutionary Mexico. History can repeat itself, not as farce but as something that works out better next time around.