Journalist: Fear Is A ‘Very Powerful Tool’ In Trump’s Approach To Immigration

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The Pew Research Center estimates that there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — and that approximately two-thirds of them have been here for more than a decade.

Journalist Frank Foer says that for many years, there was a tacit agreement among politicians of both parties that there would be a pathway to citizenship for many of the long-term undocumented immigrants.

"They rooted themselves within our communities. ... They raise children who are U.S. citizens," Foer says. "There had been this consensus that they could stay."

But shortly after President Trump was sworn into office, he passed an executive order that criminalized anyone in the country illegally — opening the door for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to deport any undocumented immigrant.

Foer says that the policy was unprecedented: "Never before have we had such a large, dedicated police force whose mission is to remove undocumented immigrants from the communities in which they're rooted."

Foer's new Atlantic cover story, "How Trump Radicalized ICE," reveals that immigration enforcement has been handed over to a small group of militant, anti-immigration hawks, who cultivate fear to accomplish their goal of driving out undocumented immigrants.

In the past, Foer says, ICE was forbidden from operating in places like schools, churches and hospitals, which are known as "sensitive locations." Now, he says, "there's growing anecdotal evidence that ICE hasn't overturned the policy of sensitive locations, but they've given themselves ever greater latitude to operate in those places where they'd once been forbidden."

Interview Highlights

On the Trump administration's tactic of cultivating fear among undocumented immigrants 

The Trump administration knows that it can't round up 11 million undocumented immigrants, even with our profound investments in immigration enforcement over the decades, there's still not the bandwidth or the infrastructure to do that. So if you're trying to seriously and quickly diminish the number of immigrants in this country you have one very, very powerful tool at your disposal — which is that you have the power of the state to cultivate fear. And so Trump himself has propagated the sense of fear with his rhetoric. The executive orders that have been proposed — and in some cases rescinded because they were so overly broad — had the effect of succeeding even when they were failing, because the theatrics of those policies helped cultivate a sense of fear.

On how ICE's reach into "sensitive locations," such as hospital emergency rooms, has affected undocumented immigrants

In places like Los Angeles and Houston and other jurisdictions there's now a lot of empirical evidence that undocumented women are afraid to call in cases of domestic abuse because when they call in those cases they're afraid that their partners are going to get picked up and deported, and they're afraid that they themselves may end up on the radar of ICE by calling in a report of abuse. So asking the police for protection could perversely result in the destruction of their lives.

On the belief that immigrants would self-deport if life became uncomfortable enough

[Kansas Secretary of State Kris] Kobach had a theory that also goes by a more clinical name "attrition through enforcement," and the idea was that you could make life profoundly uncomfortable for immigrants. You could deprive them of benefits. You could increase a sense of fear. You can make it harder for them to get jobs — and all this pressure would add up.

And at a certain point, [Kobach] argued that immigrants are rational, that their decision to come to this country and stay in this country is premised on an understanding of their own self-interest, and if the state was able to apply its powers properly, then it could induce a state of panic and terror that would cause immigrants to pack up their bags and leave on their own accord.

On Attorney General Jeff Sessions' role in immigration policy

One thing that I was told constantly is that Jeff Sessions is the de facto secretary of homeland security — that he's the person in the administration who just lives, breathes immigration policy. It's the thing that he cares about most in the world. It's really the reason that he's suffered some of the indignities that he suffered at the hands of his own boss, who seems to imply that he wants him to resign constantly, and for Sessions it's worth soldiering on, because he's implementing massive policy changes in the demand that matters to him most. ...

Sessions comes from small town Alabama and he shares with Trump this hostility to free trade, to globalization, and I think his views on immigration are of a piece with that. I also think that he has a cultural and racial hostility to immigration and the transformation of America — a fear of what multiculturalism will do to the country.

On how both parties have increased expenditures to immigration enforcement

Since the 1990s, you've had both political parties racing to prove their bonafides on immigration enforcement. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Democrats have willingly participated in the process of legislating ever greater expenditures to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, and the system has just started to bloat and grow.

By the time Barack Obama started his second term we were spending more money on immigration enforcement — on ICE and border patrol — than on the DEA, FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service combined. We were spending $18 billion on immigration enforcement, as opposed to the $14 billion that we were spending on all those other criminal law enforcement agencies. Half of all federal prosecutions were for immigration-related crimes. So everybody, every political party, nearly every politician on Capitol Hill, also played their part in creating this system.

Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

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