The Coming Immigration Crisis: the First and Last Battle of the Trump Administration

 It begins already, the struggle for the soul of the Democratic party.

It’s hard to believe that the entire leadership of the party, which led to this electoral debacle, hasn’t already resigned in shame. Why is Donna Brazile still there? Why are any of the people who shoved Clinton down our throats and showed themselves masters of ineptness at every turn of the game? In a responsible parliamentary system, they would be gone already, never to be heard from again. In our system, they are always planning their umpteenth comeback.

Bernie Sanders has endorsed progressive Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison as DNC chair. Only Sanders has come out of this election with his moral authority intact and even enhanced; everyone else is ruined. Howard Dean, much as I liked him in 2004, is not the right choice, because he went after Sanders and threw in his lot with the Clintonites as early as a decade ago.

This, the first post-Clinton struggle, will decide it right there. I hate to start with a discussion about the Democratic party leadership, because over two generations the party has been completely hollowed out as a vehicle for corporate interests; but those who are progressives, and there are a few left, ought to assert themselves vigorously in the tremendous vacuum that has suddenly emerged and prevent the rise of the Clintonites from the ashes.

The street protests that have been going on all over the country are the way to go, they are infinitely more important than anything that will happen in the halls of congress to set the trend. They are a roadblock—perhaps the most important one—to what is about to go down as soon as Trump takes over.

His very first executive actions will have to do with attacking vulnerable immigrants. When he cancels Obama’s executive orders providing temporary relief and semi-legalization to the Dreamers, and when he instructs ICE to no longer abide by the policy of targeting criminal aliens for deportation and to go after everyone, even at the cost of breaking up long-established families, then many millions of people—the families and close friends of those directly affected—will be the first casualties of the Trump regime.

Sanders, in his first televised appearance after the election, and in appearances since then, has displayed tremendous statesmanship, the kind that I do not yet see from others in the Democratic party establishment. He has repeatedly mentioned Muslims and undocumented immigrants, and said that attacks on them will not be tolerated. Whoever shows this kind of leadership, within the party or outside, ought to emerge as the natural political leaders.

Could we ever expect Clinton to come out and say something so unequivocal in defending the human rights of those most vulnerable amongst us? Is she plotting her next machinations, even as her bloated staff comes up with excuse after excuse for the loss (blame Jim Comey, when you know that in every election momentum breaks in one direction or another in the last few days), so that the only real explanation, the ill-fit of their ideological message with the electorate’s needs, is hidden and shoved under the rug.

Both the struggle for the leadership of the Democratic party and the protests on the streets are good signs of mobilization against Trump’s imminent assault on civil liberties and human rights. Any moves on trade or foreign policy or taxation will take a bit longer to work their way through, but expect a complete repeal of the Obama legacy on immigration, half-hearted as it was, as soon as Trump takes power.

The time to mobilize and prepare is now, in these next two months. I hope the protests escalate and spread everywhere, and that a set of specific demands is made and endorsed by civil liberties organizations, to hold the next president accountable from the start.

Let us note that during the savagely repressive fascistic stage of the Bush administration, between September 2001 and March 2003, civil society was completely powerless and absent. Registration of specific groups of aliens, mass deportations, illegal incarceration, unlawful surveillance, and torture and rendition, all became instituted as permanent policies of the U.S. government, policies that have not been fully contested to this day. Educators, healthcare professionals, lawyers, anyone in the front lines who could have opposed such policies—such as the specific targeting of foreign students at American universities, or Muslim visitors to the country—took a pass, and were not heard from until the Bush administration lost political legitimacy, years later.

If we have a repeat of this situation in the assault on immigrants that is about to take place next January, then all will be lost; it will be possible for Trump to carry on the rest of his agenda, from destroying healthcare rights to environmental equity, without pause. Immigration will be the first and last battle of the Trump administration, just as the passage of the Patriot Act, which took place with near complete complicity of all the Democrats in Congress, was the first and last battle of the Bush administration after 9/11.

As Nixon followed Johnson, and as Bush followed Clinton, expect the unimginable worst from Trump, then multiply it a hundred times; that’s what we’re going to get, do not expect any moderation or civility when it comes to exposed groups of people. One possible strategy for Trump might be to enact something like the dreaded Sensenbrenner law (of 2005), making unpersons of all immigrants with unresolved status issues; simply state that anyone with outstanding issues who doesn’t come forward by a certain date will be permanently barred from legalization, thereby dissolving millions of such persons with one stroke of the pen. A registration program forcing people to expose themselves would accomplish the same purpose.

The people Trump will bring on are so far on the fringes that Bush would never have considered them (just as Bush’s people would have been radical lunatics for Nixon). Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, perhaps the most influential white supremacist in this country, has been nominated to take over the Department of Justice. Senator Sessions single-handedly blocked the Bush administration’s generous immigration reform bills of 2006 and 2007. He’s been licking his chops ever since to end immigration altogether, including birthright citizenship. Also influential in designing anti-immigrant policy will be Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who implemented a registry for Muslims during the Bush administration, and is one of the fiercest xenophobes in the country.

This is what we are facing. Most likely, it will not be established organizations like the ACLU which will make strong headway against an assault so radical, but spontaneous eruptions (like Occupy or BLM) that will pick up the baton; but we will see who retains credibility.

Let us remember that President Obama kept in place the entire illegal surveillance and repression apparatus instituted by the Bush administration. As each Democrat succeeds a repressive Republican, under the neoliberal regime we have experienced for the last forty-plus years, the previous administration’s repressive apparatus is retained and legitimized, and keeps growing and growing.

The total lack of interest in holding anyone from the Bush administration accountable for crimes against humanity will end up being the most haunting legacy of the Obama era; he explicitly guaranteed, right from the start, that there would be no reconciliation and accountability, there would be no looking back at past crimes. Not only that, but Obama took some of the crudeness out of the illegalities, and turned them to more postmodern expression: the drone wars which he accelerated and established as a foundation of foreign policy, the targeted assassinations which are illegal by definition but happen now as preemptive “liberal” initiatives: war as media game, war as recessive and invisible, taken to a whole new level.

For nearly all of his first term Obama was in full-blown appeasement mode. He refused to advance any progressive goals while having control of both houses of Congress, and was obsessed with cutting a grand bargain on debt and putting social security on the chopping block. His first three years were an unprecedented era of deportations, succeeded by half-hearted measures providing semi-relief to selective groups of immigrants, rather than providing blanket protection, when Latino turnout was necessary to win the 2012 election. In any event, the whole Obama legacy, from executive orders on the environment to immigration protections, is about to be canceled.

While the Clinton machine made fun of Trump’s business acumen, the evidence, to the contrary, is right before our eyes. One could write a book on Trump’s brilliant executive decision-making during the course of his impossible win. He ran at least three different general election campaigns, quickly responding to changing circumstances, never hesitating to correct course and to bring on new sets of people and ideas. He launched his campaign years ago, identifying the unaddressed needs of the electorate and formulating his message according to existing market desires and then having the skills to get the product out despite “liberal” media resistance.

As far as immigration goes, he has converted a protofascist ideology, borrowed from European and older American precedents, into a nativist/populist movement that can quickly dissolve decades of failing identity politics clusters on the liberal side. In other words, he has all the executive skills necessary to alter the political balance for good. Unless, that is, civil society recognizes his skill and moves swiftly to exceed his capabilities by offering a full-throated defense of liberties.

We are facing an imminent crisis on immigration because Democrats chose to keep this issue alive—as a tool in the culture wars—rather than resolving it. Hillary Clinton was planning in 2008 to extend the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, perhaps start a new war with Iran, and privatize social security. In 2016, until pushed by the Sanders insurgency to make some rhetorical concessions, to which she had no allegiance, she was planning to run a campaign completely empty of ideas. The reason why the entire focus was on mocking Trump and his supporters as racist and misogynist was because neoliberalism could not have entered the arena of ideas under her reign. Both parties had planned for a prefabricated Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton neoliberal contest, discussing the minutiae of “entitlement” reform or the degree to which tax concessions should help corporations, and ignore poor and vulnerable populations altogether.

The only thing that can counter Trump’s executive ability to push through his regressive agenda on taxation, welfare, the environment, and above all immigration, likely to be his first line of battle, is a clear progressive vision that needs to be articulated now and hammered at consistently from this point on.

What we do know is that political correctness has failed as rhetoric and as strategy, and will not help the cause of immigrants. Political correctness is not the way to defend immigrant rights or the rights of any other targeted population during the coming assault.

Note that during the height of the Bush administration assault on immigrants, minorities, and gays, politically correct rhetoric was likewise at its peak, not least from administration officials. Identity politics says, Defend me because I am different than you, protect my rights because they come from a special place, leave me alone because in the end I am incomprehensible to you as the other. Whereas a defense of rights based on universalism, something that suffered a precipitous decline during the Clinton/Obama era of the last quarter-century, rests on tolerance not as a special privilege granted to one discrete entity after another but as the foundation of society, something that stems not from the separateness of each group in the cultural sphere but the similarity of everyone in the legal realm.

I would argue that liberal tolerance rests on an understanding of class, whereas political correctness, i.e., contemporary multiculturalism, is founded on ending class rhetoric. Human rights flow from recognition of class, not its avoidance. Political correctness—which manifested in the latter stages of the campaign in the form of depicting Trump’s supporters as would-be sexual predators and upholders of white privilege—is divisive, and does not engender support for minority rights under a rubric that can cut across lines of color and origin.

Half the country, that which voted for Trump, is inflamed by the strategy of political correctness to defend minority rights. They are bothered by the insane degree to which speech codes make a fetish of particular identity groups, but whose proponents are revealed as hypocritical in their simultaneous mockery of the baseline offset, the despised other, i.e., the supposed inheritors of white privilege, against whom each identity group asserts difference and moral superiority.

We ought to listen to this part of the country as we set about defending immigrant and minority rights, because despite all the fears about Trump representing an ascendancy of xenophobia, let it be noted that three quarters of voters in exit polls this election favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; the country overwhelmingly, still, rejects deportation. That generosity does not come from identity politics. It comes from forgotten liberal principles, shared values of economic justice, that need to be recovered—and soon.

Anis Shivani’s books in the last year include Soraya: SonnetsWhatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems, and Karachi Raj: A Novel. Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century: Conversations and A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less: A Novel come out in early 2017.


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