On Tuesday night, at a rally in Phoenix, President Trump reiterated his campaign promises to expel “the gang members, the drug dealers and the criminals who prey on our people.” Trump hasn’t changed his tune on immigration, even though so far, deportations have actually declined under his administration.
This disconnect reflects a tactical necessity rather than lack of intent. Mass expulsions would require additional congressional appropriations and time for cases to work their way through the nation’s backlogged immigration courts. As a result, the president and his surrogates have ramped up their draconian rhetoric and harsh policy proposals in hopes of scaring people into the shadows or out of the country altogether.
Fear, a central component of Trump’s campaign, has now become a governing tool.
On the campaign trail, he scapegoated immigrants to rally support for a political agenda based on a supposed white, Christian, law-abiding, U.S.-citizen “us” and a non-white, Muslim, Mexican and Central American criminal immigrant “them.” As president, Trump has gone out of his way to make clear that no undocumented immigrant should feel safe.
Levels of fear have run high in immigrant communities. Organizations have canceled cultural events to avoid the possibility of an immigration raid; people have sought sanctuary in churches; and some have decided to leave the country, or “self-deport.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant scare tactics and the sentiments that underlie them are not new. Throughout U.S. history, xenophobia has spiked during times of economic hardship, reflecting a toxic combination of cultural prejudices and blatant racism. It has been directed at immigrants from places as diverse as Ireland and China, Japan and Mexico and countries across Central America and the Middle East.
For more than a century, limited resources and a lack of public support for large-scale expulsions have led public officials to consistently employ other strategies — including terror campaigns — to coerce immigrants into leaving the country. Trump may be amplifying such tactics, as his speech in Arizona made clear, but he’s relying on an old playbook.
“Operation Wetback,” the infamous 1950s deportation drive that Trump has cited as a model for his immigration policy, is but one example of how the federal government has turned to fear as an enforcement strategy.
During the drive, authorities rounded up and removed as many as 250,000 Mexicans in an effort to rid the country of undocumented immigrants and regulate the flow of agricultural labor. The government hoped that the crackdown would result in both agricultural laborers and employers relying exclusively on the Bracero Program, a binational agreement that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to the United States on temporary contracts over the course of 22 years.
Although Operation Wetback officially commenced June 17, 1954, it actually began with a publicity blitz in the weeks leading up to the drive, well before officers had apprehended anyone.
By the official launch date, so many people had supposedly left in response to the advanced publicity that a man from Brawley, Calif., wrote to immigration authorities to congratulate them on a job well done. “Whoever originated the idea is a ‘psycohologist (sic) of the first magnitude.’ ” The campaign, he wrote, had turned Brawley into a “Ghost Town.”
Self-deportation efforts played an even more important role when Operation Wetback shifted to urban centers in the interior of the country, where it was more difficult for immigration agents to apprehend people and carry out large-scale raids.
In Chicago, media coverage and immigration officials’ equivocation about the existence of the upcoming drive punctuated authorities’ fear campaign and generated anxiety in the Mexican community.
By October 1954, more than 1,200 people had fled the city in response to publicity efforts, which exceeded the number of apprehensions made during the same period.
But well-publicized fear campaigns could only do so much, and plenty of people refused to leave.
Many Mexicans in Chicago were established members of the community, with roots in the city going back three or four decades, rather than recent arrivals or seasonal labor migrants. As a local immigration official noted, many Mexicans “have purchased household furnishings, automobiles, appliances and clothing on extended payments, have established bank accounts, postal savings accounts, public utility contracts and, in short, become involved in all the complexities of the average city dweller.” These individuals insisted on their belonging and used their community connections to secure bond releases and counsel. They also received assistance from organizations like the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, which provided services and support to Mexicans and other immigrants targeted for removal.
Despite the limited effectiveness of self-deportation campaigns in pushing people out of the country, they remain an essential component of the deportation machine, as Tuesday’s rally and Trump’s incessant anti-immigrant fearmongering make clear.
However, undocumented immigrants and their allies are fighting back, building on the organizing efforts of the past and taking to the streets and courts to defend themselves, their families and their communities. After all, like Mexicans in Chicago in the 1950s, many undocumented immigrants today are American, for all intents and purposes — even if not by citizenship. They, like everyone else, should not be subject to inhumane policies that are both fueled by and meant to instill fear.