The president’s tweet previewing “the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States” combines menace and hyperbole. It is likely to induce anxiety and panic in some immigrant communities, even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deportations, lacks the officers, detention space and other resources to remove “millions” of migrants except possibly over the course of years.
More to the point, perhaps, doing so would necessarily entail shattering large numbers of families, including ones well established over a decade or more of residency and whose children, born in this country, are citizens. As Mr. Trump and his administration discovered a year ago, Americans are rightly appalled at the sight of government agents wrenching apart parents and their children; they would likely react just as badly to a rerun involving their neighbors as they did to the original iteration, in which agents focused on families who had recently crossed the border.
Of the roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, about 1 million are estimated to be subject to final orders of removal by immigration judges. Presumably, they are the ones who would be prioritized for arrest by ICE — and should be, particularly if they have serious criminal convictions on their records.
As for the millions of others, a large majority of whom are law-abiding, employed and woven into U.S. communities, families and lives, ICE should proceed with caution. Granted, the agency is entitled to arrest those who face removal orders if their cases have been fully adjudicated. But there is also no question that some prospective deportees are spouses and parents of U.S. citizens; rent payers and mortgage holders; valued employees and managers. The caricature of dangerous, criminal migrants painted by Mr. Trump — whose own golf clubs have been happy to employ many undocumented migrants — bears scarce resemblance to reality.
To the president, illegal immigrants have been a political convenience — a wedge issue tailor-made to excite his nativist base. Little wonder that the president who excoriated the mayor of Oakland for spilling the beans on a planned raid by deportation agents thought nothing of doing the same for a much bigger operation in the works — and did so on the eve of the formal kickoff of his 2020 campaign, at a rally in Orlando on Tuesday evening. Expect more such incitement from a chief executive for whom undocumented immigrants are political props, not real people.