Deportation hysteria

How to make sense of Trump's immigration promises?

Since Donald Trump's election victory, the rhetoric over his hard line stance on immigration policies hasn't cooled a bit. In a recent interview on "60 Minutes," the president-elect vowed to deport or incarcerate as many a 3 million immigrants. Not to be outdone, some big city mayors from Seattle to New York stepped forward promising to maintain their status as "sanctuary cities" that will refuse to enforce federal immigration laws.

But what if for all the bluster and threats, the posturing and promises, a Trump administration pursues an immigration strategy not all that different from that of President Barack Obama? For a variety of reasons, that might be where he's headed. Here's why.

First, often overlooked by Mr. Trump's more virulent anti-immigrant supporters is that fact that the Obama administration has already set records for deportations. Since 2008, an estimated 2.7 million people have been deported by the federal government, with an emphasis on the very individuals Mr. Trump claims he wants to ship out — gang members, felons and other serious criminals.

So if he's talking long term, Mr. Trump's immigration stand may not be quite as bold as it appears. Indeed, it would be hard to see the numbers add up otherwise — there simply aren't 3 million undocumented convicted criminals to deport. The number is more likely under 900,000, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Migration Policy Institute estimates, and it's probably dropping given that illegal border crossings have fallen in recent years.

Second is a simple lack of deportation infrastructure. Ever try to round up millions of people who don't want to be caught? During the campaign, the Republican nominee spoke of a possible "deportation force," but Republicans in Congress have already poo-pooed that idea. And it's not just a lack of immigration agents — detaining suspects and litigating all those cases would pose a considerable challenge to existing resources as well.

In fact, there's already a backup in the court system — perhaps a half-million or more cases — from the Obama administration's ongoing deportation efforts. Mr. Trump can vilify the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without documentation all he wants, but the law gives those individuals certain rights — among them the right to appeal any deportation order.

Given those legal, logistical and resource impediments, it's entirely possible Mr. Trump is pulling a fast one of his supporters and will simply make more noise about deportation than his predecessors. The building of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico may prove to be in the same vein — many miles of fencing already exist along the California and Arizona borders, barriers that have proven far from impervious. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of the undocumented arrive legally but then overstay their visas, making a fence, wall or any other barrier moot.

Yet even if a President Trump doesn't hire a deportation force, build much of a wall or take any of the draconian measures both his critics and many of his supporters have been anticipating, he's already helped change the American culture — for the worse. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. Polls show American attitudes toward immigrants from the Middle East, Latin America and Africa are more negative than positive regardless of legal status.

Latinos are more likely to distrust law enforcement and not report crimes or cooperate with criminal investigations. One study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine suggests Latino fear of police and deportation has gotten so bad that they are less likely to call 911 for an ambulance or emergency medical help during a heart attack — with potentially fatal consequences.

And hate crimes directed toward Mexicans and other Latinos are on the rise as well. More than 400 incidents of harassment and intimidation have been recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center since Election Day. The leading target? Immigrants, with 136 such cases as of Monday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump's attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA could lead to a trade war and tariffs that will depress the Mexican economy and motivate more people to enter the U.S. illegally. If all that sounds confusing, bingo, you've got it about right. Mass deportations are unlikely, but mass hysteria over a bogus immigration threat? That may be closer to what's in store for the country.

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