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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 1, 2019, 5:27 pm

It’s Not Just About Deportations: Trump Wants To Create a Permanent Underclass

BY Maximillian Alvarez and William Lopez

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President Donald Trump pictured in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on August 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson - Pool/Getty Images)  

When the President announced in an ominous tweet two weeks ago that mass immigration raids targeting “millions of illegal aliens” around the country were imminent, those who would suffer the worst did not have the luxury of wondering whether or not he was bluffing. Days later, the worst fears of many were seemingly confirmed as news came in that ICE agents were mobilizing to carry out what they and the DHS chillingly referred to as the “family op,” which was expected to include predawn raids and arrests of up to 2,000 families beginning on June 23. Communities around the country were bracing for impact. And as news broke one day before raids were set to commence that President Trump had abruptly called for a two-week postponement, undocumented individuals, families and communities were once again left with frayed nerves and an unshakeable fear that the nightmare was far from over.

As some have reasonably argued, this episode demonstrates, at best, a familiar hardline bargaining tactic that Trump is employing to get what he wants from congressional Democrats, or, at worst, a callous publicity stunt aimed at amping up Trump’s base as his re-election campaign launches in earnest. But it must be remembered that the people who are suffering as a direct result of his threats are not an afterthought in this horrid melodrama, nor are they merely collateral damage in some political battle playing out over their heads. They are the primary targets. 

Trump’s advance alerts about the raids, which clearly compromised ICE’s stealth (and rushed) plans to carry them out, and his dramatic declaration of postponement just hours before the “family op” was set to commence, are telltale signs of what these headline-grabbing raid threats are actually about. Like the loud, brutal spectacle of physical home and workplace raids, these threats are a transparent, calculated effort to terrorize people, their families and their communities

Even if ICE doesn’t carry out this most recent round of planned raids, and even if such raids are ultimately less effective at deporting people than the Obama administration’s quieter, more bureaucratic methods of immigration enforcement, they are still, as far as the Trump administration is concerned, a “success.” Because it’s not about raw deportation numbers: It’s about the role terror plays in transforming immigrant communities into a permanent, hyper-exploited underclass. 

This is why the announced postponement from Trump is by no means a crisis averted. The effect these raids–and the threat of raids–are designed to manufacture has already become part of our world. It hides in plain sight, beneath the mirage of business as usual keeping average citizens from having to confront the daily torture of people they live, work and worship next to. The terror is already here: It’s in people’s fearful goodbyes every morning, in the car parked across the street, in the footsteps coming up the stairs.

Spectacular cruelty

From the dramatic increase in workplace raids and arrests carried out by ICE to the vicious “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in thousands of family separations, the Trump administration has made it clear that the cornerstone of its immigration enforcement policy is highly visible and spectacular cruelty. As reported in The Washington Post on May 13, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence have expressed their eagerness “to execute dramatic, highly visible mass arrests that they argued would help deter the soaring influx of families.”

Consistent with the cannon of Trumpism, these inhumane acts are, at base, a morbid “marketing strategy.” The cruelty is the point, but not because cruelty is an end in itself. As then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions summed up in one of his most harrowing speeches, the point of all this cruelty is to “send a message.” And this message is designed to sow terror among all members of a systematically subordinated underclass, further securing their subordination. 

The perverse desire to manufacture such terror echoes throughout the administration. “If you’re in this country illegally … you should be uncomfortable,” then-ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan told the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee in 2017. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” 

As a result of this terror, plenty more undocumented migrants will leave or be forced out of the country: The number of immigration arrests, deportations and workplace raids is rising. As The Marshall Project reports, “voluntary departures”—or “self-deportations,” as Mitt Romney has described them—have also increased significantly under the Trump administration. Trump supporters have cited this increase as proof that the President's immigration enforcement policy is working as promised. 

But when Trump and his subordinates repeatedly and publicly stress the need to remove all undocumented migrants and “end illegal immigration,” they aren’t so much detailing the administration’s immigration policy as helping to enforce it. These words do more than they describe: They are air-born poison, making us sick and scared. Because, for Trump and the larger systems of class and racial domination his administration serves, physically expelling undocumented people from the U.S. is ultimately less of a concrete priority than creating the conditions for millions of people to live in constant fear that they could be next. 

A life of exploitation and precariousness

This maximalist rhetoric becomes increasingly apparent the more we weigh the stated goals of Trump’s immigration enforcement policy against the concrete steps his administration has taken to enact it. If the presumed goal is to end illegal immgration while expelling as many undocumented people from the U.S. as possible, then history strongly suggests that Trump’s preferred means for doing so won’t work. The recent increase in workplace raids is a case in point.

There’s a reason workplace raids had seemingly gone away–until Trump brought them roaring back. It was in May of 2008 when Postville, Iowa, a factory town with a population just a nose above 2,000, bore witness to one of the largest ICE workplace raids in U.S. history, which resulted in 398 arrests. The town itself became a bleak monument to the era of major workplace raids, which seemed to have melted into history along with the Bush administration.

The devastation and outcry in the wake of the Postville raid was vast and surprisingly effective in turning the public against the Bush administration’s hardline approach. And over the next eight years, due in part to the catastrophe of Postville, the incoming Obama administration would end up taking a less public, more bureaucratic approach to immigration enforcement. Though it didn’t avoid them entirely, the Obama administration’s strategy focused less on physical workplace raids and more on I-9 audits, or “paper raids.” This strategy proved to be far more effective and publicly palatable than Bush’s Postville playbook: Obama, the “Deporter-in-Chief,” still holds the title for most deportations carried out during a presidential term.

If Obama’s “silent raid” approach proved to be a chillingly more effective method for hunting and deporting people than the workplace raids of the Bush era, then why is the Trump administration dead set on bringing workplace raids back? Proponents of the Trump doctrine tend to respond by extolling the value of the “deterrent” effect of such tactics, but this defense doesn’t really hold up either. As any immigration scholar or advocate could tell you, there’s scant evidence that increases in raids will deter undocumented migrants from entering the country, nor will they push more than a fraction to leave the country “voluntarily.” 

It is a documented fact that, rather than leave their jobs when the threat of raids and deportations looms large, undocumented workers will subject themselves—out of fear and necessity—to greater exploitation, wage theft and precariousness. Employers, in turn, will seize on the “opportunity” to squeeze as much surplus value out of workers under the coercive threat of destroying their lives and families with one phone call. From bosses and managers to law enforcement to citizens with a grudge, anyone with even a modicum of power will continue to internalize and regularize the fact that they can leverage state-sanctioned terror to exploit, assault and shake down our most vulnerable neighbors, classmates and coworkers. And the vast majority of undocumented people will continue to live and work in the cracks of the American dream, increasingly relegated to a highly exploitable, bare-life existence that is both “outside” of our systems of governance and commerce and entirely integral to their functioning.  

The permanent underclass

“History,” as K-Sue Park writes in the Harvard Law Review, “instructs us to look past what self-deportation policy avows to what it accomplishes in the contemporary environment.” And beyond what Trump’s immigration enforcement regime claims or avows to do, what it effectively accomplishes is “the subordination of an ever-widening population vulnerable to exploitation and not desired as a part of the nation’s polity”—a second class of cheap, exploitable non-citizens and perpetual political scapegoats that our political system depends on. “[T]he presence of these individuals may be tolerable or even desirable,” Park continues, “as long as they remain compliant with the policy.”

What appear to be inefficiencies in the Trump administration’s (avowed) immigration enforcement policy have nevertheless served to effectively secure and amplify the subordination of a great domestic underclass. “As for extended border control deportation,” Daniel Kanstroom writes in Deportation Nation, “history shows how poorly that system has actually worked. It has functioned primarily as a labor control device, a kind of extra tool in the hands of large businesses (and, for that matter, American families seeking nannies, gardeners, and so forth) to provide a cheap, flexible, and largely rightless labor supply. Worse, it has facilitated selective enforcement against particular racial and ethnic groups.”

State-manufactured terror is—as it’s always been—a vital tool in this historical struggle for class and racial domination. It is a viciously potent means for keeping workers, families and communities down. If it is supposedly a sign of failure that our immigration system has yet to find and deport over 10 million undocumented people, then it is a horrifying sign of success that the machinery of state terror continues to isolate, oppress and drain this subordinated population for all it’s worth. "The threat of raids from the highest official in office sends a sonic effect of fear through our immigrant communities—it affects us all,” Diana Marin, supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, told In These Times. “It sends people into hiding, unwilling to interact with school, police, any state affiliated institutions. It saps resources from organizations working with immigrant communities as they work to put into action emergency plans.”

The measurable dimensions in which this terror systematically works people over are wide and varied: It is scorched onto their bodies and brains, it mars their social and psychic lives. For instance, in a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Nicole L. Novak, Arline Geronimus and Aresha Martinez-Cardoso studied the effects of the 2008 raid in Postville on lower birth weights (LBW) in White and Latina mothers in Iowa. They found that the “rates of LBW were steady among White and Latina mothers in the 2 years preceding the raid, but that rates of LBW rose only among Latina mothers after the raid.” For Latinxs in Iowa—undocumented people and citizens alike—the terror from the raid was physically passed onto the next generation. 

This is to say nothing of the many other physical, emotional, psychological, social and civic registers in which the terror manifests, intensifying the cumulative subordination of the racialized underclass. In a policy statement, the Society for Community Research and Action notes, “Immigrant children living in communities where immigration raids have taken place feel abandoned, isolated, fearful, traumatized, and depressed.” The paper notes that “community members are often more fearful and mistrustful of public institutions, less likely to participate in churches, schools, health clinics, cultural activities and social services."

Along with making undocumented people more vulnerable, the terror serves the sinister aim of disappearing them from political life and community, continually eroding their capacity to trust in others and build solidarity. State-manufactured terror, of which the re-emergence of workplace raids is a functional part, constitutes a direct attack on our most vulnerable workers and their loved ones—and it, in turn, constitutes an indirect attack on workers everywhere. Such callously imposed impediments to building solidarity with our fellow workers are always a gift for the ruling class, for which a united working class will always pose an existential threat.

To resist this systematic assault, we need solidarity. And we need to show solidarity materially, by taking care of each other

“This really goes to allies,” undocumented activist Aly Wane urged over the phone. “If you are an ally to undocumented folks in your community, first check in on them [and see] how they’re doing in terms of their mental health and if they have physical needs.” 

“At the end of the day,” he continued, “nothing beats a local community response network where allies actually step up and do the work that’s required. That includes making sure that, if there are raids in the area, that they show up, that they document what happens, that they take the names of the officers involved.” According to Wane, “That’s really the last bastion that we have: allies stepping up.”


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Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. His writing has been featured in The Baffler, Boston Review, Current Affairs, Truthout, etc. He is the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.”

William Lopez is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Faculty Director of Public Scholarship at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. He is the author of Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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