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The War on Immigrants: Racist Policies in the Trump Era

President Donald J. Trump and his administration’s immigration agenda centers on draconian, enforcement-based policies and executive orders, exacerbating an already dysfunctional immigration system. As an extension of Trump’s then–presidential campaign, the Trump administration’s immigration policies also represent racist and xenophobic practices, such as anti-Mexicanism and Islamophobia. Like Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, these immigration policies and orders promote an isolationist and white nativist philosophy, hearkening back to the more oppressive periods of U.S. history when racialized groups (e.g., Latinos, African Americans) lacked basic civil rights, privileges and freedoms under the law.

Complicating matters, Trump’s immigration policies and orders are plagued with hyperboles and falsifications, making it difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction/fantasy (e.g., Mexico will pay for border wall). However, while Trump has engaged in an ongoing “war on immigrants” campaign—in actions and words/Tweets—against immigrants and their families/communities, a growing social movement of immigrant activists, immigrant advocates and elected officials have emerged to defend the civil and human rights of those who live and work in America’s shadows.

On January 2, 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for President of the United States, the charismatic leader proclaimed: “The Presidency is the most powerful office in the Free World.  Through its leadership can come a more vital life for all of our people. In it are centered the hopes of the globe around us for freedom and a more secure life…” In contrast to JFK’s aspirational announcement, on June 16, 2015, then-presidential candidate Trump infamously uttered: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”

By targeting individuals of Mexican origin, Trump launched his presidential campaign on a racist political platform based on anti-Mexicanism—a long-standing American tradition embraced mostly by millions of white citizens/voters. Trump’s derogatory campaign also included the creation of a “deportation force” (i.e., a military-style force) to deport millions of Mexicans, similar to those of the 1950s with “Operation Wetback.” During this racist program, the U.S. government deported over one million Mexican immigrants (including citizens of Mexican heritage). In an excellent essay, “La Realidad: The Realities of Anti-Mexicanism—A Paradigm,” the historian Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones contextualizes the case of anti-Mexicanism: “U.S. anti-Mexicanism is a race premised set of historical and contemporary ascriptions, convictions and discriminatory practices inflicted on persons of Mexican descent, longstanding and pervasive in the United States… Anti-Mexicanism is a form of nativism practiced by colonialists and their inheritors…”

Similar to the inhumane interment camps of over 125,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during the 1940s, Trump’s immigration policies are intertwined with a long history of racism and xenophobia in the U.S., where Mexicans, Asians, Arabs (particularly Muslims) and other racialized groups represent threats to national security. Compared to European immigrants (particularly Northern and Western Europeans of current and past generations), these racialized groups are also viewed as inferior by the dominant culture, as articulated by the late Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s racist essay, “The Hispanic Challenge.”

That is, Trump and his administration didn’t invent racist and xenophobic policies or practices, since countless American leaders and prior administrations have also demonized and scapegoated racialized immigrants throughout U.S. history. For instance, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, like the Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks and other groups, also experienced discrimination as ethnic and religious groups (e.g., Catholic, Jewish).

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Arab immigrants and Arab Americans (particularly Muslims) have been targets of racism in the U.S. It’s clearly evident that Trump’s proposed Muslim ban during his then-campaign represented a case of Islamophobia. Similarly, Islamophobia is also manifested in Trump’s revised travel ban from the Muslim-dominated countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. While the revised travel ban order excludes the label “Muslim,” based on Trump’s presidential candidacy (e.g., speeches, interviews), Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise of a Muslim ban.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated the “war on poverty” and President Richard Nixon ignited the “war on drugs,” Trump has championed the “war on immigrants.” Trump’s “war on immigrants” policies (and rhetoric) include demonizing Mexican immigrants, persisting on building a border wall (paid by U.S. tax-payers), imposing a Muslim travel ban, targeting all undocumented immigrants for deportation (regardless of criminal history) and other draconian proposals. This includes separating children from their parents when detained together at the border and prosecuting individuals (e.g., parents, relatives) who pay human smugglers or coyotes to cross undocumented children into the U.S.

There’s also a psychological component to the “war on immigrants,” where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are apprehending/arresting undocumented immigrants in places like courts and near schools, where immigration agents have commonly ignored or respected as “safe” places. By doing so, the Trump administration is causing widespread panic among undocumented immigrants. Given that undocumented immigrants are not marginal or isolated actors—where they’re embedded in communities and families/households that often include U.S. citizens (i.e., mixed-status households)—Trump’s “war on immigrants” campaign has also caused panic among Latina/o communities, including Asian American communities and others with immigrant sub-populations.

Moreover, Trump’s “war on immigrants” agenda hasn’t spared “sanctuary cities.” According to Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, “sanctuaries cities” impose restrictions with immigration-enforcement authorities: “These are areas that mostly do not cooperate with federal requests to hand over undocumented immigrants arrested by local police on unrelated charges, or where local police departments do not want to become an immigration enforcement body.”

As part of a growing movement in response to these hostile federal actions, many elected officials across the nation have joined in solidarity with immigrant communities, along with activists and advocates, in defying the Trump administration’s racist and xenophobic policies. In California, for instance, state leaders and elected officials have filed lawsuits and taken legislative actions, such as Senate Bill 54 to make California a “sanctuary state.”

In short, during these turbulent and uncertain times for millions of immigrants, it’s imperative that we—those of us who believe in justice and dignity for all—advocate for humane and just policies for those on the margins, especially given their major contributions and sacrifices on a daily basis to the U.S.

This essay was originally published—as a policy brief with references—in the American Political Science Association (APSA) Migration and Citizenship Newsletter, Summer 2017, Vol. 5, No. 2.

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Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).

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