Bouie: What Trump would deliver in promise of mass deportation

In rounding up millions of people, Trump invites internment and mistreatment based on background.

Jamelle Bouie / The New York Times

Among the worst episodes in American history are those moments when the federal government deploys the full weight of its power against the most vulnerable people in the country: the Trail of Tears and the Fugitive Slave Act in the 19th century and Japanese internment in the middle of the 20th, to name three.

If he is granted a second term in the White House, Donald Trump hopes to add his own entry to this ignominious book of national shame.

Trump’s signature promise, during the 2016 presidential election, was that he would build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. His signature promise, this time around, is that he’ll use his power as president to deport as many as 20 million people from the United States.

“Following the Eisenhower model,” he told a crowd in Iowa last September, “we will carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.”

It cannot be overstated how Trump’s deportation plan would surely rank as one of the worst crimes perpetrated by the federal government on the people of this country. Most of the millions of unauthorized and undocumented immigrants in the United States are essentially permanent residents. They raise families, own homes and businesses, pay taxes and contribute to their communities. For the most part, they are as embedded in the fabric of this nation as native-born and naturalized American citizens are.

What Trump and his aide Stephen Miller hope to do is to tear those lives apart, rip those communities to shreds and fracture the entire country in the process.

“The Trump immigration plan,” notes Radley Balko, a journalist who writes primarily on civil liberties, in his Substack newsletter, “would be the second-largest forced displacement of human beings in human history, on a par with Britain’s disastrous partition of India, and second only to total forced displacement during World War II.”

What is the plan, exactly? It begins, as Miller explained in an interview with Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk last year, with creating a national deportation force consisting of agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Border Patrol and other federal agencies, as well as the National Guard and local law enforcement officials. The administration would empower this deportation force to scour the country for unauthorized and undocumented immigrants. It would move from state to state, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood and, finally, house to house, looking for people who, according to Trump and Miller, do not belong. This deportation force would raid workplaces and stage public roundups to create a climate of fear and intimidation.

Of course, in the heat of the moment, it isn’t actually all that easy to determine who may be an unauthorized or undocumented immigrant. But these won’t be selective apprehensions. How could they be? Instead, what we’ll see in practice is an indiscriminate roundup of anyone who might appear to be an immigrant; a mass campaign of racial and ethnic profiling.

Because it would be beyond the capacity of the federal government to immediately return detainees to their “home” countries, the Trump team also plans to build “vast holding facilities that would function as staging centers” for immigrants on land near the Texas border. Internment camps, essentially.

It is worth remembering here that in addition to its wanton cruelty, Trump’s policy of child separation was also noteworthy for the poor conditions suffered by separated families living in government facilities. Child detainees lacked adequate food, water and sanitation. There were also reports of mistreatment, as in the case of the Border Patrol agents who were accused of telling detained women to drink out of toilet bowls.

Now imagine the conditions that might prevail for hundreds of thousands of people crammed into hastily constructed camps, the targets of a vicious campaign of demonization meant to build support for their detention and deportation. If undocumented immigrants really are, as Trump says, “poisoning the blood of our country,” then how do we respond? What do we do about poison? Well, we neutralize it.

There are roughly 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, according to a recent estimate by the Pew Research Center. Trump’s number of “probably 15 million and maybe as many as 20 million” is pulled from nowhere; an assumption based on the inchoate sense that the official numbers are wrong and there must be more “illegals” to apprehend than anyone truly realizes.

To reach this goal, Miller and Trump would almost certainly have to round up citizens as well. But that is also part of the plan. On the first day of his second term, the campaign has let it be known, Trump will sign an executive order “to withhold passports, Social Security numbers and other government benefits from children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States.”

Neither Trump nor Miller appears to have made any distinction between the undocumented children of undocumented immigrants and the native-born children of undocumented immigrants, which fits their opposition to the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship through the 14th Amendment. Under the Trump deportation plan, citizenship will not save those who have the wrong background.

The Trump campaign’s promise to detain and deport millions of immigrants, along with many American citizens, is a promise to plunge the country into an authoritarian nightmare. It is also a promise of strife and pervasive civil conflict.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Americans responded to an effort of this sort with violence. With the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which essentially deputized all authorities and private citizens in free states as slave catchers required to return all escaped slaves to their enslavers, came widespread, armed resistance to efforts to carry out the law. You did not have to be sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved to be outraged by the notion that you could be dragooned into acting as a bounty hunter for state-sanctioned human traffickers.

The political consequence of the Fugitive Slave Act, to the dismay of Southern lawmakers, was to radicalize countless Northerners against the so-called Slave Power and raise sectional tensions to a point of almost no return. The law did not cause the Civil War, but it was the provocation that set the stage for a decade of conflict that led, inexorably, to war.

Do we not think that a mass deportation program, with roving bands of armed agents, would result in similar upheaval? Do we not think that there would be violent resistance to agents storming homes, churches and businesses to seize and detain people? And do we not think that a Trump who wanted, during his first term, to shoot protesters would see this as an opportunity to do so; a hoped-for chance to invoke the Insurrection Act, mobilize the military and crush his political opponents?

We talk often these days of illiberalism. It is has become a bit of a buzzword. Often, the focus is illiberalism in elite spaces, usually classrooms and common areas of selective colleges. Sometimes the focus is on particular politicians. But what we are seeing here from Trump isn’t simply a distaste for liberal values; it is a taste for genuine tyranny and bona fide despotism, one that complements his endless praise for dictators and strongmen.

Rhetoric matters, and what candidates say is not simply for show. At every opportunity, Trump has placed the mass deportation of millions of people at the center of his campaign. It is a promise. And the promises a presidential candidate makes while on the trail are the promises a president tries to keep.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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