Democrats and other opponents of Donald Trump are still jubilant over the defeat of the American Health Care Act and the de facto end of Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Part of their optimism is just the fact of victory, part of it is knowing that they’ve preserved key health gains, but part reflects the knowledge gained from watching Republicans fail in real time. House Speaker Paul Ryan has lost his shine as a wonk of unusual ability. Instead, we now know he holds neither the skills nor experience needed to wrangle a fractious Republican majority behind a single piece of legislation. And while Trump is famous for deal-making, the reality is he’s impotent as a negotiator, unable to bring reluctant Republicans to the table, and poorly versed in both policy and the details of governance. That these are fundamental problems—not easily remedied or repaired—bodes ill for future Republican legislative efforts like tax reform or infrastructure.
But lost in this analysis of Trump’s defeat is the fact that, as president, he has other avenues for action beyond legislation. And that, as a candidate, his promises went beyond fixing health care or building new infrastructure. Trump promised to help his supporters, and as part of that, he also promised to attack perceived threats, from Muslim refugees to Hispanic immigrants, and punish their sympathizers. And it’s in this area of punitive action that the president has something close to free rein. He’s taking full advantage of it, moving through with his promised agenda of harassment, deportation, and other attacks on vulnerable communities. Trump’s legislative agenda is floundering, but we shouldn’t lose sight of his actions on this front.
Gone are the standards crafted under President Obama, which tasked Immigration and Customs Enforcement with deporting serious criminals. Instead, ICE agents under President Trump have newfound freedom to investigate, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrants wherever they are regardless of their history in the country. And these actions are much more visible than in the past; in one now-infamous example, ICE agents waited outside of a church to arrest undocumented immigrants coming from a shelter in Alexandria, Virginia.
In another, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant previously eligible for a deportation reprieve under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was arrested and scheduled for deportation after speaking to media. Irvin González was arrested and faces deportation after ICE agents in El Paso, Texas, staked out the courthouse where she was seeking a protective order against an allegedly abusive boyfriend. Immigration rights advocates have attested to incidents where agents are targeting people on their way to work or detaining parents leaving schools. Cities like Austin, Texas, and Savannah, Georgia, have seen a surge of ICE activity with indiscriminate enforcement that has pushed undocumented families back into the shadows.
The damage to immigrant communities goes beyond the almost existential terror of knowing you could lose a parent, or spouse, or even child to arbitrary detention and deportation. In the cities where immigration enforcement has ramped up, there have also been fewer reports of rape and domestic violence, as women in undocumented communities have shied away from law enforcement for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.
At a recent press conference, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said there’s been a 25 percent drop in reports of rape among the city’s Latino population since the beginning of 2017, and a 10 percent drop in reports of domestic violence with no such similar drops among other groups. “Imagine a young woman—imagine your daughter, sister, mother, your friend—not reporting a sexual assault because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart,” said Beck. In a press release, the LAPD clarified that while it didn’t have a direct link between the decline and immigration fears, it believed that “deportation fears may be preventing Hispanic members of the community from reporting when they are victimized.”
Those same fears, notes Annie Lowrey for the Atlantic, are also scaring eligible families from utilizing the social safety net:
Of the 20 organizations working with documented and undocumented immigrants that I spoke with in recent weeks, 17 said they had seen legally eligible families declining to enroll or even unenrolling from programs, including SNAP, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, free school lunches, and the Women, Infants, and Children program.
If widespread, the effect will be to “increase poverty and hunger in Latino communities,” with particular harm to citizen children, Lowrey reports. This, it should be said, is a goal of sorts for the Trump White House, which outlined its plan to push immigrants off of the safety net in January. One draft executive order would ask the Department of Homeland Security to issue a rule saying an immigrant can’t be admitted to the country if they are likely to receive any benefit “determined in any way on the basis of income, resources, or financial need.” This goes beyond cash benefits to in-kind assistance like the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
It’s no accident that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threat on Monday to withhold or revoke law enforcement funding from “sanctuary cities” came on the heels of Trump’s health care failure. “I strongly urge our nation’s states and cities and counties to consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to enforce our immigration laws and to rethink these policies,” said Sessions. “Such policies make their cities and states less safe—public safety as well as national security are at stake—and put them at risk of losing federal dollars.” (Some of these cities have promised to take the Trump administration to court if it follows through on the threats.)
Trump may have stalled out in Congress, but he can still move smoothly on his other agenda of nativist aggression and harassment. Indeed, if Congress becomes an even deeper quagmire—if his nominee to the Supreme Court faces a contentious fight and if lawmakers stymie infrastructure and tax reform like it did health care—then a frustrated Trump may focus entirely on fulfilling his promise to inflict pain on “threats” like Muslims and immigrants.
Opponents of the president should remember that there are multiple fronts to their battle against the White House. There’s the one in Washington—highly visible and clearly consequential—and the one elsewhere, in cities and towns across the country, that’s just as important, and just as critical to preserving an open and pluralistic United States.