What if you launched a massive immigration sweep—and almost no one got swept up?
Gotcha! President Trump is a master showman, the PT Barnum, sucker-born-every-minute, carnival barker of American politics.
He’s also someone who likes to create chaos and scare people, not only to be mean but also to flex his muscles and get attention.
But Trump’s much-hyped immigration crackdown on Sunday—which was postponed for two weeks in the first place—ultimately fizzled out.
While White House officials said that there were as many as 1 million people who were eligible for deportation after defying final orders of removal from immigration judges, when the smoke cleared, it became obvious that the raids were only going to target about 2,000 people. Nationwide.
Ten cities were targeted—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and Atlanta. In many of those cities, thousands of protesters marched in the streets, expressing outrage that the Trump administration would target the vulnerable. Yet, across the country, media outlets reported very little activity by immigration agents. In the end, despite the president’s huffing and puffing, what was billed as a cherry bomb set to wreak havoc in the middle of America’s immigrant communities wound up being nothing more than a sparkler.
Whether or not Trump was ever really serious about launching, from sea to shining sea, immigration sweeps that netted tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants is irrelevant. What matters is that, all across the country, immigrant communities took the threat seriously—and then took cover.
And in San Diego, where I live, children were kept indoors, and adults stayed home from work. Undocumented parents made contingency plans about what would happen to their families if they were deported.
According to CBS News, the Chicago Archdiocese urged priests not to let any immigration officials into churches without a warrant. Around the country, other clergy organized space in churches to make room for families in need of refuge. In Los Angeles, a dozen churches declared themselves sanctuaries.
Because of his tone-deaf handling of the race issue, Trump has been called an “arsonist.” And because of his divisive approach to the immigration issue, some people are now saying he should be thought of as a “terrorist.”
This isn’t hyperbole. In fact, I borrowed that term.
According to CBS News, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, recently wrote a letter to priests in the archdiocese saying: “Threats of broad enforcement actions by ICE are meant to terrorize communities.”
In Los Angeles, Rev. Fred Morris of the North Hills United Methodist Hispanic Mission told a reporter for the network: “Everybody is nervous. They are angry, very angry at being terrorized by our president.”
And at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Deputy Legal Director for Immigrant Justice Mary Bauer told Reuters: “Immigrants and immigrant communities all over the country are in hiding and people are living in these terrified, terrorized ways, because that is the point of this whole action, whether enforcement actions take place or not.”
But what if this hadn’t been a cruel head fake by Trump, and the threat of massive nationwide immigration raids had actually materialized?
It was totally believable that this was the path we were on, the path we may still be on with this provocateur-in-chief.
By word and deed —and tweet—Trump has made it clear that he thinks this nation of immigrants would be a really swell place if we could just get rid of immigrants. It would make sense to start with the low-hanging fruit: illegal immigrants who doubled down on rule-breaking by entering the country improperly, or overstaying a visa, by then going on to defy court orders.
Now it’s time for Americans to have the debate we haven’t had, and decide how we feel about deporting those who are almost asking to be deported.
Even as someone who opposes family separation and supports earned legal status for undocumented immigrants who have been here a long time and contributed a lot, I have a hard time opposing this kind of targeted enforcement effort. Some people shouldn’t be defended. They made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. Choices have consequences, and you don’t help people by treating them like children who need protection from themselves.
Yet, that’s not the whole story. Accepting that the United States has— just like any other country, including Mexico and other countries in Latin America—the right to deport those who violate the law doesn't mean this is a good, sound, or workable long-term policy. We can’t deport our way to a more secure border and a better, fairer immigration system.
Focusing on those who have defied court orders is an easy, low-maintenance effort that, while it doesn’t make a dent, also doesn’t cause much turmoil or get maximum results.
Trump—and those who shape his administration’s immigration policies, including White House adviser Stephen Miller—must understand this. That means the last few weeks have all been a show, an elaborate charade intended not just to scare immigrants but also to rile up Trump’s supporters on the cultural right. The latter group is made up of folks who think they’re losing America because of immigration—both legal and illegal, and they’re counting on Trump to get it back for them. And as long as he appears to be trying to deliver on that promise, they’ll give him credit for the effort. We’ve been played. Again.
This isn't an episode of Law and Order. It’s a remake of Alice in Wonderland.