White House

Trump doesn’t need a deportation machine. Obama’s already built it.

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016. Some immigration advocates think Trump will be an easier adversary to confront than Obama, whose talk about immigration revisions was contradicted by some of the largest deportation numbers in recent U.S. history.
President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016. Some immigration advocates think Trump will be an easier adversary to confront than Obama, whose talk about immigration revisions was contradicted by some of the largest deportation numbers in recent U.S. history. AP

Viridiana Martinez is tired of hearing how bad life will be for those – like herself – living in the country illegally under the Trump administration.

The 30-year-old immigration activist from Mexico has heard the president-elect’s rhetoric about her homeland sending its worst people to the United States and his plans to deport millions.

She finds the talk disgusting, but she also figures that if Donald Trump’s immigration record is anything like President Barack Obama’s in terms of what politicians will say in order to get elected versus what they actually do once in power, then Trump could turn out pretty good.

“Obama told us the right things, but he did the wrong things,” Martinez said. “In a way, I’m happy that we have an administration that thinks immigrants should be deported – and they’re saying that. They’re not saying something else. They’re not making false promises. I’m glad the cards are on the table and there is not a hidden agenda. Because then we can fight accordingly.”

For much of the country, the prevailing myth is that Obama is the president who dismantled immigration enforcement. But to Martínez and others, he is the “deporter in chief,” who separated thousands of families, held children in jail-like family detention centers and deported more immigrants than any other president before him.

He also fine-tuned and expanded a “deportation machine” that experts say Trump could tweak just a little bit and kick off a new flood of deportations.

Obama told us the right things, but he did the wrong things.

Viridiana Martinez, Alerta Migratoria NC

Trump and Hillary Clinton made immigration a major part of their campaigns, but it was Trump’s incendiary talk about building a wall to keep immigrants out that sent shock waves through Latino communities. It also raised concern among industries, such as agriculture and construction, that would face daunting labor shortages if Trump deported thousands of their workers.

In Idaho, for example, workers here illegally make up 43 percent of the agricultural workforce, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In North Carolina, that figure is 40 percent, while 22 percent of the state’s construction industry’s workers are in the U.S. illegally. In California, the breakdown is 35 percent for agriculture and 21 percent for construction. In Texas, it’s 30 percent for the construction industry and 26 percent for farming.

Similar concerns about labor shortages were raised during Obama’s first term, when he appeared to renege on promises to overhaul the immigration laws and instead boosted enforcement. Deportations increased in each of his first four years, peaking at 400,000 in fiscal year 2012.

Luis Concha, a second-generation immigrant, says a Donald Trump presidency is hard to swallow because of the anti-immigration stance he built his campaign around, including building a border wall and banning Muslims from coming into America.

During Obama’s years in office, the number of Border Patrol agents surpassed 20,000 for the first time. Nearly 700 miles of border fencing were completed.

Immigration enforcement spending rose to new highs. According to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan research center, the Obama administration spent $154 million on federal immigration enforcement during his presidency in 2016 dollars. The George W. Bush administration spent $103 million, adjusted to 2016 dollars.

The Obama administration has worked to shed the “deporter in chief” label, arguing it couldn’t stop deportations and that it focused on the removal of those who had criminal records or had already been given deportation orders.

Deportations did decline under Obama starting in 2013, after he shifted gears and signed presidential memorandums giving federal agents the discretion to stop the deportation of immigrants for minor offenses. He also deferred the deportations of thousands of young immigrants, like Martinez, who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

It’s patriotically correct to say Obama didn’t deport anyone. It’s just a myth.

Alex Nowrasteh, Cato Institute

But Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said it wouldn’t be difficult for Trump to get the deportation machine running again and take credit for any success. Trump could repeal those memorandums, adopt a national worker-verification program and reactivate programs like Secure Communities, another initiative expanded under Obama, which linked federal and local law enforcement by identifying immigrants here illegally who’d been arrested and having them deported.

“And boom, Trump can claim total victory,” Nowrasteh said. “He has this machine in place. He will probably just talk about it more, is what he’ll do. Instead of Obama not playing up his role in deportation, he’ll talk about every big deportation raid.”

In some ways, Trump is already starting to sound a bit like Obama on immigration. Instead of deporting all 11 million immigrants here illegally, Trump said he’d focus on those with criminal records. The massive wall he promised may now be just an extension of Obama’s fencing.

It’s not that Martinez isn’t immune to Trump’s toxic language, she says. As a Mexican immigrant, she says she feels the racial tension and understands the concerns many have. She’s heard of cases around her community in Durham, North Carolina, of children being threatened and told demeaning things.

She doesn’t support Trump, but she said people shouldn’t be afraid of him. She hopes the community can unite against him instead of being split between those who want to fight against Obama’s enforcement and those who looked the other way because they feared a worse alternative.

“With the Obama administration, it’s been so hard to expose him and to fight these cases for our people because no one wants to pressure him,” Martinez said. “They’d just say ‘Trump is worse.’ ”

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