Donald Trump is leading the field for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination by a wide margin. Of his policy positions, nothing has distinguished his campaign more than his ultra hard-line immigration proposals. These two facts are mostly undisputed, but so far commentators have focused on how both a Trump presidency and the imposition of such strict border controls are unfeasible. It’s a good way to avoid reckoning with their substance and consequences. When we’re talking about millions of lives at risk, however, it pays to be mentally prepared.
In order to “make America great again,” Trump wants first to better define it. Candidate Trump, if elected, plans to build a wall around the country. He also wants Mexico to pay for the construction costs. It’s a ridiculous, albeit somewhat popular, project, but the wall deflects attention from the rest of his dead-serious immigration plan.
Trump has accumulated a lot of support from the GOP nativist base in large part because they trust him to enforce immigration laws. The first sentence in his plan is “When politicians talk about ‘immigration reform’ they mean: amnesty, cheap labor and open borders,” and he’s right. Few national politicians and fewer business leaders are serious about deporting 11 million people. Undocumented immigrants are a necessary part of the national economy; American enforcement practices are designed to manage, not eliminate, violations of border laws.
A strain of American resentment can’t deal with this contradiction: If some people are allowed to violate the law, they must be doing so at the expense of lawful citizens. It’s not true; undocumented immigrants (not to mention over 50 million Latino Americans nativists are really talking about) contribute to the national economy, tax base, culture and social fabric in innumerable ways. But racism and xenophobia make inspiring campaign themes. “Enforce the law,” they say. But “enforce the law” would mean splitting the country in ways that are so horrific, they are difficult to contemplate.
First of all, there’s the scale. Deporting 11 million people would be a population transfer so large it only has a couple historical precedents, and one of them is Adolf Hitler's. To extract that many people from their communities would require a much larger and more determined effort that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is capable of at present. To this end, Trump proposes tripling the number of ICE officers, specifically geared to increase deportations. In a country with volunteer border patrols and lasting unemployment, I don’t think President Trump would have a problem recruiting.
Sending an amped-up ICE on a mass-deportation mission wouldn’t just be an assault on undocumented people and their families, it would be an attack on American cities, where more than 90 percent of them live. For large municipalities, rigorously enforcing immigration law is unfeasible but also politically unpopular. So-called “sanctuary cities” have declared their ongoing intention to drag their feet when it comes to cooperating with the Feds. For example, law enforcement in many cities (including New York) selectively complies with ICE requests to hold people in custody on suspicion of being undocumented. ICE can’t do their job without local cooperation and the use of these legally questionable detention orders has decreased by more than 70 percent in the last four years.
Trump’s answer to sanctuary cities is to defund them by “cutting off federal grants.” It’s not clear if he means particular law-enforcement grants or all federal money, but either way he’s provoking a big fight, one that pits levels of government and their armed agents against each other. Every American city larger than Jacksonville, Florida, has some sort of public sanctuary provision. I don’t think Trump wants to go to war with all of them, but he says he does.
Local law enforcement might be a Trump ICE’s smallest problem. I don’t think any number of federal officers will be able, for example, to enter New York City and round up half a million people without meeting popular resistance. There are plenty of precedents. London’s Anti-Raids Network catalogs and organizes activism against immigration enforcement neighborhood by neighborhood. The group uses Twitter to spur immediate disruptions of raids in progress. American authorities may be better armed, but we also have a strong core of brave activists and organizers who are already changing the country from the street. And if only a small percentage of the various conspiracist anti-government fringe movements’ members aren’t white supremacists, the detention camps a Trump administration would have to hastily construct would push at least dozens of them over the edge.
On the other hand, ICE agents might not be the worst thing we’d have to fear. In a report for the New Yorker, Evan Osnos looked at how popular Trump is with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. They have heard his anti-immigrant dog whistle loud and clear, even earning Trump the endorsement of leading Nazi site the Daily Stormer. A Trump presidency would embolden these organized racists much more than his campaign already has. I have no doubt they would take the opportunity to terrorize racial minorities and attack resistance infrastructure.
I don’t believe all Americans are willing to put themselves on the line for the undocumented in their communities or to fight tyranny in general, but some do and more will. Right now there’s a contradiction between the laws and the practices when it comes to American immigration, and it’s no accident. This compromise keeps elite interests (like low-wage labor and white supremacy) balanced and the system running, at least until now. Because the current system works well for most powerful people, it’s doubtful Trump will be able to win the presidency or implement his dastardly plan, but his support indicates a substantial number of Americans are so full of hate they want to roll the dice no matter what the consequences.
A Trump presidency would delegitimize the federal government just as he sends thousands upon thousands of unwelcome agents into American cities. There’s a term for what comes next: civil war.