Donald Trump has recently claimed that very soon after he takes office—“immediately” being the exact word—he will deport between 2 and 3 million undocumented immigrants, focusing on the ones with criminal records.
As he told 60 Minutes:
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country. They’re here illegally.”
As for the rest?
“After the border is secure and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that they’re talking about… who are terrific people. They’re terrific people, but we are gonna make a determination…”
Whatever else this move would be, it would be a remarkable feat, as it would be about equal to the number of deportations that have been processed under outgoing President Barack Obama. And despite what Trump’s stump speeches and years of right-wing talking points may have led you to believe, President Obama has overseen an awful lot of deportations; more, in fact, than any other president in history.
This ongoing crackdown has destroyed lives, shattered families, sown suspicion throughout communities, legitimized discrimination, and damaged the economy. It has also come at great logistical difficulty and expense, being the sort of monumental undertaking that requires concerted political will to pull off over months and years. The deportation apparatus stretches across state lines and multiple branches of the government.
Whatever else it may be, it was not in a practical sense, easy.
And to try to back up what some assumed was just campaign bluster, Donald Trump is purporting he will meet or exceed this dubious feat “immediately”. Doing so would exact a high human cost as well as a massive price tag in dollars, cents, and political capital. There’s just no way to do what the current deportation apparatus has done in eight years “immediately” without utilizing even more brutal, even more indiscriminate tactics, without openly turning immigrant communities into militaristic police states, and without inflicting a lot of collateral damage on people, properties, and public trust.
Now, Mr. Trump has assured us that he knows all the best words, and that one word “immediately”, it is just, to use another of his words, “tremendous”. What does it really mean? I know what it means in the simple, common sense: right away. Right off the bat. Not later, now!
But Trump doesn’t have two million people ready to deport, or even that many people ready to round up for deportation, or the resources and workforce in place to do so.
So we have to read “immediately” to mean “as soon as possible”, and even then, are we talking about immediate action, or immediate results? Does “immediately” mean he’s going to start working towards this end right away? Does it mean he signs an order? Does it mean he just sort of vaguely signals to the relevant agencies that this is his intention on Day 1, and then leaves them to deal with it?
To his fired-up army of Red Hat Regulars, I have a feeling that “immediately” will just mean “immediately”. It means pronto, scoot, git’er done. It means exactly the kind of dystopian, authoritarian scenario I alluded to above will play out, play out immediately, and somehow do no harm to anyone or anything that affects them.
To the Red Hats, it means from the time that Donald Trump grudgingly moves from his golden palace in the sky to that shabby little place in D.C., anyone who looks “illegal” to them is living here on borrowed time. The president says they’ve got to go, and if they stick around, it’s on them what happens. Expect to hear more than a few low-information partisans bragging about it on January 21st as if it has already happened. We might even get a fake news story crowing about the number of day 1 deportations.
To what I suppose we must call his more moderate supporters, “immediately” just means “expect vigorous action soon, it’s a top priority”. They don’t honestly expect him to deport millions of people on day one, no reasonable person would, so it’s silly to think that anyone would take it any other way, and any suggestion that he meant anything so unthinkable is just a bunch of disingenuous liberals trying to scaremonger. Obviously!
Isn’t that marvelous? Two very different groups of people can look at this one word and both will see exactly what they want to see.
And that’s just one word. Trump had a lot more of them. Let’s look again at the most widely-cited part of his statements on immigration, the first chunk I excerpted:
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country. They’re here illegally.“
Do you notice the rhetorical pivot he does there? He starts out by saying they’ll be going after criminals, people with criminal records, invoking the heavily racial coded criminal categories of “gang member” and “drug dealer”. These are the people it’s most palatable to go after for immigration enforcement. Who’s going to put up a fight over deporting them? But then he states his reason for deporting them: they’re here illegally.
And just like that, everybody who nodded along thinking, “sounds reasonable enough,” when he’s talking about gang members and drug dealers has agreed with the foundational premise to mass deportations in general: if they’re here illegally, they have to go. Questions of humanitarianism don’t apply. Questions of economic reality don’t matter. Human empathy, compassion, Christian charity, even the actual points of the law whose spirit is being invoked… all of the things don’t matter once you’ve agreed it’s as simple as “here illegally == gone”.
As for the not-drug-dealers, the “terrific people”? Presumably, these are the same not-rapists and not-murderers he referenced on the campaign trail as “some, I assume, are good people,” about them, he says that we’ll “make a determination” once the real riff-raff has been cleared out and the border is secured.
If you’re not a hard-liner on immigration, you’re thinking that because he said they were terrific people, that determination will be that they should have some path to staying on legitimately. If you are a hard-liner, what you’re hearing is: priorities… get the most dangerous ones out first, then we can deal with the rest.
The really pernicious thing about this statement is that it has been received as both Trump keeping a campaign promise and as him walking back on it. You can see him talking about how he will deport 2 or 3 million people immediately and take that as his ultimate goal (more modest, for want of a better word, than his initial promise) or as a good start towards making good on his promise to deport every undocumented immigrant from our shores.
After all, even if the “immediate” action takes him a year to complete, 2.5-ish million deportations a year would clear out the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States within is first term.
Now, the biggest problem with him actually making good on his claim in any sense is that, according to best estimates, there aren’t 2 or 3 million people living in the country undocumented and with criminal records. There isn’t even 1 million.
If Trump’s number has any relation to reality, he might have been inflating a commonly-cited figure of 1.9 million total non-citizen immigrants who have a criminal record. The term of art bandied about for this group is “removable aliens”, and it is a category that includes people who are here legally on a current visa or holding a green card and who have been convicted of even petty, non-violent crimes and misdemeanors, not just violent or sensational felonies.
The reality of existence for the people in this category is that their continued presence here is in danger, but they’re not the “illegal aliens” Trump has been talking about. So if we take Donald Trump’s claims at face value, then no matter how we parse things like “immediately” or “we’ll make a determination”, we still must conclude that he has either lied about how many people he will deport, or who he will deport.
So, which is it?
If you’re asking this question, you haven’t yet caught on to the way that Trump operates, because the answer is: “Neither. Both. Whatever. You tell me.” You can believe whatever you want to believe out of his statement. If you need to believe that his immigration policy will be in some way fair and judicious, you can believe that the number was an off-the-cuff estimate and of course he’s going to be sticking to the group he said he would. If you’re in favor of indiscriminate mass deportations, you can believe he singled out specific groups of offenders to sell people on the number.
And if you honestly don’t care about anything except the fact that Donald Trump is president and he’s going to kick some behind and make America great again, you’ll believe whatever part of the statement it’s convenient to believe, when it’s convenient to believe it.
Donald Trump said he’ll deport 2 to 3 million people, and that they’ll be bad people, drug dealers and gang members. What will happen is he’ll deport as many people as he can, as he can get away with, and as he thinks he needs to in order to maintain (or better yet, grow) his power.
He’ll do so guided by confidantes who have the explicit goal of making America whiter.
Every obstacle in his path, from simple logistics to the actual rule of law and requirements of due process, will be blamed for his failures and used to generate grassroots support and political capital for removing such obstacles to his rule.
And as doors are kicked in and kids ripped from parents arms and people are shoved in the backs of vans, as civil liberties are curtailed and human rights are abused and due process denied, people will be saying, “like it or not, he did what he said he was going to do, and that’s something” and “well, they’re all drug dealers and gang members and rapists, right?”
And while he does this, he will continue to lie the way that he has: not making the rookie error of trying to shape a single, consistent narrative, but saying things that allow different crowds of listeners to take the message they want, the message they need to hear.
It’s the same tactic, fundamentally, as his choice of appointing a steady establishment Republican like Reince Priebus to be his symbolically important Chief of Staff but picking white supremacist Steve Bannon to be his less official but more influential Chief Strategist. Those who want to shore up the institutions of democracy or the interests of the Republican Party can see the Priebus pick as a solid commitment to continuity and tradition, while those who want to see a real power grab or burn it all down see Bannon as their man in the right place at the right time. And those who are most concerned with the idea that everybody can get along and the nation can heal see the two picks collectively as an attempt at unity.
A sentiment commonly attributed to another American president is that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Well, in the “post-truth” era he’s helped to usher in, Donald Trump is sure giving it the old college try.
Even if he fails, he’s found his “some of the people” and he’s making considerable hay out of fooling them all of the time.
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