A week after President Trump declared his preference for immigrants from places like Norway over various “shithole” countries (that just happen to be majority nonwhite), Congress and the White House are negotiating over keeping the government funded, with immigration as a key issue. Most Democrats only want to do avoid a shutdown if the Dreamers are given legal protections that Trump has sought to remove. In return for offering them protections, Trump wants funding for things like a border wall. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued its heightened pace of immigration raids and deportations, and recently declared that it would remove protections from Salvadoran immigrants who had settled in the country.
To discuss the state of play on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s approach to immigration more broadly, I spoke by phone with Jonathan Blitzer, a staff writer at the New Yorker who covers immigration issues. (Earlier this month, he wrote about the presence of the MS-13 gang on Long Island.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how much racism has influenced Trump’s immigration policies, whether tough-on-immigration stances can be counterproductive to halting crime, and if Democrats should compromise on a border wall if it means protecting the Dreamers.
Isaac Chotiner: Rather than just thinking about Trump’s racist “shithole” comment as something that’s offensive, do you think it is actually a good guide to the way his administration is carrying out immigration policy?
Jonathan Blitzer: Yeah, I think so. I think his remarks matter. I think the frequency of these kinds of racist remarks matter. I think it does paint a picture of what the president’s inclinations are on immigration matters. I think for the most part the people who have his ear are people who want to curb legal immigration to the United States. So when you hear the president trash whole nationalities in the context of a broader conversation about immigration reform, I think it’s a pretty reliable indicator of where he and his inner circle stand.
What are some of the historical parallels here?
The language that’s being used right now by the hard-line nationalist core group in the White House is language reminiscent of the 1920s, when U.S. immigration policy was very much concerned with redrawing quotas and our policies on who we accept. Again, in Trump’s case, it seems to me to be a just sort of casual consequence of his racism that he’s open to some of these ideas. It’s hard to imagine that he’s thought through these things as deeply, say, as someone like Stephen Miller has. Someone like Stephen Miller has been in the grips of nativist think tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies, who’ve been pushing very wonky, specific proposals over the years that would redraw the U.S. legal immigration system.
What about his immigration policy more generally—these raids we’ve been reading about, the decision on El Salvador? To what degree do you think that a racial vision underlines this and to what degree is it just how someone who is somewhat unsympathetic to illegal immigration would act?
I think the racial prism is a helpful way to look at it. At the same time, I really do think that the president’s views on this stuff are pretty random, quite frankly. I think there are definitely racist assumptions that underlie pretty much all of his policy preferences, but I don’t actually think he has much of a concrete or even coherent idea of what an immigration policy in this White House would look like.
That said, in the immigration context, this sort of open-endedness spiked with casual racism, and kind of like tough law and order–style pronouncements, actually has major, major consequences in terms of immigration enforcement. One of the first things the administration did on taking office was issue an executive order. This was back in February, gutting all of the enforcement priorities that had been created under the Obama administration for how ICE did its business.
Essentially in the past, in the last two years of the Obama presidency, DHS created a set of priorities, basically saying to ICE: Look, there’s a huge undocumented immigrant population in the United States. 12 million people. You can’t go after everyone. If you guys are going to be a serious police force and if people aren’t going to live in fear of completely random acts of arrest and deportations, you have to prioritize people with criminal records. You have to prioritize people who could be viewed as constituting a public safety threat. The new administration immediately canceled those priorities, which pretty much means there are actually no guidelines for how ICE now goes about its business.
In one sense, that suits the MO of the administration, which is almost total randomness. There really isn’t a kind of thoroughgoing vision of what immigration enforcement looks like. In fact, if you think thematically, the administration is doing things that in some ways undermine the president’s very public statements about how concerned he is with the growing undocumented population in the U.S.
Just talking about the Salvadoran population, you’re talking about 200,000 people. Those people aren’t just going to leave after two decades here because the administration has now removed this legal protection for them. You are going to see the undocumented community grow in the United States under the Trump administration.
What’s more, arrests are up, right? So the statistics I’ve seen are that ICE arrests have gone up by something like 40 percent, and a significant number of those are people who did not have criminal records. There’s an enormous backlog in immigration courts, a backlog of over 600,000 cases, which means that you actually can’t process all the people who are being arrested. In fact, if you were thinking about this all rationally, [the arrests] would be counterproductive.
One thing your colleague Sarah Stillman mentions in her piece in last week’s issue of the New Yorker is that immigrants are not reporting crime. The drops in major cities are staggering. In Arlington, Virginia, for example, according to Stillman, “domestic-assault reports in one Hispanic neighborhood dropped more than eighty-five per cent in the first eight months after Trump’s Inauguration, compared with the same period the previous year. Reports of rape and sexual assault fell seventy-five per cent.” You would think that as an administration that talks about being tough on crime that this would be a huge problem, but it isn’t to them.
One hundred percent agreed. It’s counterproductive in almost every sense. You don’t even need to go to the bleeding-heart liberals for confirmation of this. You talk to police, you talk to sheriffs, and a lot of them are actually quite concerned about what this means for public safety and how they do their police work. Victims aren’t coming forward.
In some of the work that I’ve done on Long Island, MS-13 has been basically an obsession with this administration, and in every instance, the way the administration has gone about trying to combat the gang problem has backfired and has resulted in communities being a lot less safe than they otherwise would have been.
What’s happening on Long Island—and I think it’s fair to say this is happening elsewhere where MS-13’s been active—what ICE and local law enforcement have started to do is they’ve been so indiscriminate in who they’re arresting for suspected gang associations that they’re actually arresting a lot of people who are the victims of gang crime. I mean, you look at some of these communities, the victims and the perpetrators live side-by-side in these tiny hamlets. They go to the same schools. They work the same jobs. The idea of arresting anyone who has this kind of peripheral association with the gang is nonsensical.
There’s some racial profiling going on on Long Island, and this is exactly the stuff that you’re describing, the fears that people have. I mean you have victims of crimes who are scared to come forward because when they talk to the police, they know police are talking to ICE and the next thing they know, they’ll either end up in detention or family members will end up in detention.
What would be a more proper approach to MS-13? It seems like a tough issue for Democrats.
The proper approach from a law enforcement and community-building standpoint is to invest more money in after school programs. It sounds like sort of milquetoast policy, but you talk to experts on this, you talk to former gang members and community organizers and all of them, all of them are aligned in stressing the importance of just basically providing some sense of community for kids who live in these immigrant communities who often have come fleeing gang violence in Central America who have essentially nowhere else to turn. They go to schools. They don’t speak the language. There aren’t after school programs. They don’t have counseling. Some of them have undergone intense trauma. They’re easy marks for a gang that recruits people who feel isolated and socially marginalized. Oftentimes what happens is they join up on the U.S. side and not on the Central American side, precisely because they feel exposed here.
But that’s not an easy sell. I think Democrats are in a tough spot on that and I think that’s one of the reasons why the Republicans have really tried to link MS-13 to this kind of nationwide attack on sanctuary cities. It’s all playing on these fears and rhetorically, I think for the most part has been pretty successful for Republicans.
If you put aside for a minute America’s role in helping immiserate El Salvador, going back many years to our support for very bad people during their civil war, what would you tell American citizens about taking in immigrants who might be likely to end up in gangs like this?
I don’t think they are so likely to end up in gangs. I think that’s one of the first things that the administration trades on: playing up the idea that all of these kids who arrive here are somehow threats. A tiny, tiny minority of unaccompanied kids who show up in the U.S. end up joining these gangs. The vast majority, the overwhelming majority of them have no gang affiliation, want nothing to do with the gangs, and if given the opportunity here, thrive.
The argument for why we should be more open to them is the same argument that I would make about U.S. refugee policies generally. It is a mark of American moral and political leadership. It actually affects our policies and our foreign policy weight in these regions. The United States has supported all kinds of horrifying political regimes in Central America, but even leaving that political history aside, the gang problem in Central America is the direct outgrowth of U.S. deportation policy. It’s a literal shift. It’s not even a manner of speaking.
Mass deportation creates instability. It’s just going to continue to create a refugee crisis. I mean this crisis is just the continuation of a decades-long trend. We sometimes look the other way, which sometimes is contributing directly to the violence in these regions and then people basically having no other move than to try to move north.
Is the human cost of rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program so great that the Democrats should be willing to compromise on anything, including giving Trump more border wall money?
That’s a complicated question. I think the human costs of rescinding DACA are as high as these things go. I think it’s a hugely, hugely tragic eventuality. These people would have no protection, and I think the Democrats should be willing to make certain compromises. How far they have to go to make a compromise, we actually haven’t even seen what the terms of that would look like.
From what I’ve heard from sources, Democratic leadership, particularly in the Senate, looks at 2016 as this really dangerous referendum on how immigration can really hurt the party in some ways—if it’s not careful. I think for the most part, the Democratic position seems to be, all right, let’s let the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot until the midterms. I think it’s bred a certain risk aversion that’s very much part of the Democrat DNA.
I don’t think that they would pay a major political price for shutting down the government by withholding their vote for a continuing resolution, unless that resolution contemplated a DACA fix. And I also think morally they have to stand for something. Someone has to stand for something. That’s basically how I see it.
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