Are President Trump's executive orders pushing U.S. toward racial violence?

President Trump’s executive orders are pushing the nation toward unprecedented civil strife and possibly violence

Published January 31, 2017 9:58AM (EST)

AP Photo/Evan Vucci (AP)
AP Photo/Evan Vucci (AP)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Forget about the stupid wall for now—because even Republican congressmen in border states say it won’t stop migrants or smuggling. The deeper threat in President Trump’s executive orders ramping up federal immigration forces is pushing the nation toward unprecedented civil strife and possibly violence.

Trump’s orders aimed at visa-less migrants lay a foundation to attempt the largest mass arrests, incarceration, prosecutions and deportation seen in America in decades. (This weekend, protests broke out at airports across the country over Trump's orders aimed at excluding non-citizen Muslims, including valid visa holders.)

The orders also are calling for state and local police to become arms of federal police, assisting in rounding up potentially more undocumented immigrants—if carried out—than all the Jewish Europeans corralled by the Nazis during World War II—11 million U.S. migrants lacking visas, and possibly millions more of their children born here who are citizens.

Trump’s orders don’t mention the fate of the undocumented children nor the parents of legal citizens. These indviduals should not receive any government benefits, the orders say, adding that police can arrest people based on suspicions, not evidence, and throw them into a prison system where the White House is also discouraging immigration courts from pre-trial release.

The orders also threaten to withhold federal funding for several hundred “sanctuary cities” across the country that have declared they will not cooperate with federal authorities, which mayors and city officials from San Francisco to Boston stood by this week.

“I have a message for the bully in chief,” said San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “We will fight you in the streets, we will fight you in the courts, we will fight you in our workplace, we will fight you on legislative floors, we will fight you in our churches, we will fight you in our neighborhoods, we will fight you in our union halls. You better be ready for a fight because we are protecting our sanctuary city and our immigrant communities by any means necessary.”

“I recognize that under the Constitution, federal law is supreme and that Washington determines immigration policy,” said California Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr., in his State of the State address. “California has enacted several protective measures for the undocumented: the Trust Act, lawful driver's licenses, basic employment rights and non-discriminatory access to higher education. We may be called upon to defend those laws and defend them we will. And let me be clear: we will defend everybody - every man, woman and child - who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.”

“As long as I am mayor, I will never turn my back on those who are seeking a better life," said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. "If people want to live here, they'll live here. They can use my office. They can use any office in this building. Any place they want to use, they'll be able to use this building as a safe space.”

Approaching Civil Strife

There’s nothing normal about the emerging political landscape and forthright pledges of defiant resistance now surfacing across America as it pertains to defending undocumented immigrants.

Just as progressive governors, mayors and local officials are declaring their intention to protect immigrants, Republican politicians—like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott—said he would seek laws to fire any sheriff would help federal immigration officials. He singled out the new sheriff in Travis County—where Austin is—Sally Hernandez, who said, “Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE or that Travis County deputies are ICE officers.” Abbott said, “We will remove her from office.”

“I do think that we are in the most serious existential internal crisis since 1860,” wrote Sanford Levinson, an emeritus constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School, in a late 2016 article specifically probing whether Trump’s pledged immigration crackdown could push the country toward civil war. “I do believe that, at least psychologically, we are at the brink of civil war inasmuch as critical masses on both right and left basically look at their fellow Americans as enemies who must be stopped at almost any cost. This, to put it mildly, is not ordinary politics.”

“How… might the civil war begin, since there will certainly be no Fort Sumter to signal the beginning,” he continues, before laying out a chilling historical comparison and assessments of where Trump’s mass deportation machinery may lead—if it spins out of control and includes declarations of martial law.

“I think the most likely beginning would be reminiscent of the violence in the streets of Boston over the rendition of fugitive slaves like Anthony Burns [in 1854]. After all, one should be clear that Burns violated the law by fleeing his confinement as a slave, and the august Supreme Court, in the worst single decision in our history upheld the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793,” Levinson wrote. “So do a fast forward to 2017, and imagine that peaceful families of undocumented aliens start being rounded up and sent to concentration camps prior to their deportation. Many of us, I hope, would see it as our duty to stand in solidarity with them and prevent the legal authorities from being able to carry out their own legal ‘duties.’”

Is this the precipice the country is now approaching? The rhetoric on both sides since Trump announced his crackdown and signed the first of what is expected to be several more executive orders on immigration (as leaked drafts were covered in publications like the Vox) suggests great strife, including violence, could be coming because the personal, emotional, political and societal stakes are so high.

Trump’s order said the wall was needed because “the recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico has placed a significant strain on federal resources” and because “continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States.” Both statements are factually incorrect—as undocumented immigration has trailed off and immigrants are not behind most crime in America—although these racist claims were hallmarks of Trump’s campaign.

But as the country is learning, posturing and power, not facts, are what’s important to Trump. Whether that translates into more fervent resistance than mass protests, such as middle-class Americans challenging the police, or using modern advances in telecommunications to disrupt and thwart an immigration police state, remains to be seen. Trump, for his part, however, is now relishing the power he finds at his command.

Presidential Crackdown

“This is a law enforcement agency,” the president told the Department of Homeland Security, speaking at their headquarters and launching the crackdown. “But for too long, your officers and agents haven’t been allowed to properly do their jobs. You know that, right? Do you know that? Absolutely… But that’s all about to change. I’m very happy about it and you’re very happy about it. From here on out, I’m asking all of you to enforce the laws of the United States of America. They will be enforced and enforced strongly.”

“People are surprised to hear that we do not need new laws,” Trump continued. “We will work within the existing system and framework. We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States. Before we go any further, I want to recognize the ICE and Border Patrol officers in this room today, and honor their service. And not just because they unanimously endorsed me for president. That helps, but that’s not the only reason…”

Trump’s executive orders say the new policy will be to “secure the southern border through the immediate construction of a physical wall,” which House Speaker Paul Ryan subsequently said he would fund. That priority was followed by detaining “individuals apprehended on suspicion of violating Federal or State law,” expediting legal “claims of eligibility to remain in the United States,” and removing “promptly those individuals whose legal claims to remain… have been lawfully rejected.” The White House expects local law enforcement to “fully cooperate” at every stage, and envisions “Federal-State partnerships,” meaning local police will become federal immigration deputies.

The executive order goes further, saying that privately run concentration camps will be build in the desert near Mexico: “The Secretary [of Homeland Security] shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the border with Mexico.”

It orders the U.S. Attorney General to “immediately assign immigration judges to immigrant detention facilities.” It says that the federal government will “end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens,” referring to pre-trial releases of those charged with immigration violations—which has allowed many accused to stay with their families.

And it threatens to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities—“except as mandated by law”—which Trump’s order said “willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens… [and] have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

Frontline Reactions

Those targeted by Trump have responded swiftly and stridently. Many local officials defended their communities and pledged to keep doing so. Nationwide Immigration law advocates quickly called Trump’s actions unAmerican and questioned whether they could be put into action. That’s because there are many potential hurdles that could be interrupted by what’s expected to be likely court challenges.

“Today’s actions are the first steps taken to implement a deeply troubling agenda that criminalizes people based on where they’re from and what they believe. They not only contradict our most cherished values as Americans and defy the Constitution, they don’t begin to address our country’s real needs,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “This will result in a monumental waste of taxpayer money and will create chaos in our immigration system and courts.”

While lawyers like Hincapie said Trump’s orders contain unprecedented and unconstitutional elements, and are likely to get bogged down in court, it is also true that emerging mass resistance is also new territory. The vehemence on both sides suggests that the coming clashes, once Trump sets his plan in motion, will deeply unsettle regions of the country—beyond the fears now felt inside immigrant households.

“They’re setting out to unleash this deportation force on steroids, and the local police will be able to run wild, so we’re tremendously concerned about the impact that could have on immigrants and families across the country,” Joanne Lin, senior legislative council at the ACLU told the New York Times. “After today’s announcement, the fear quotient is going up exponentially.”

That fear—which has included high school teachers on the San Francisco Bay Area reporting that parents told their students to pack and be ready to flee after Trump was elected—suggests a much deeper fissure and threat to the country than any terrorist attack from abroad, said Levinson, the University of Texas Law School emeritus professor. The prospect of Trump-led deputies and vigilantes rounding up immigrants could lead to scenes reminiscent of hunting fugitive slaves on city streets in the 1850s, he said, or the round ups of European Jews in the 1930s—even if a majority of Trump’s supporters didn’t vote for that.

Levinson’s essay concluded, “Nothing that Al Qaeda could do so threatens the American fabric as does Donald Trump and the truly deplorable part of his base, even if we take necessary care to concede that they may represent only a relatively small subset of the larger number of people who voted for him in their  understandable desire to remonstrate (a true euphemism) against elites of both parties that had almost willfully ignored their plight in the rush toward globalization. No doubt many of those who voted for the Nazis in 1933 also had ‘understandable reasons’ to do so. It really didn't matter once they seized power through legal means.”

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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