When it comes to immigration enforcement, just like everything else in American life right now, nervous systems are on red alert. So what the hell is actually going on?
One meta answer to that question is that most consumers of policy information are seeing it through the distorting lens of perceived political intentions. That is to say, if two (or three) presidents engage in the same activity, reaction to it will depend on whether or not people think the chief executive's heart is in the "right" place.
For good reason, immigration advocates assume that Trump's intentions are malevolent, leading many to the less-reasonable conclusion that each new screening procedure and executive order is breaking new ground in awfulness. "Soon it'll be 'illegal criminals concentration camp,'" #Resistance leader Keith Olbermann warned us Monday.
But so far, when it comes to ICE deportations, the material difference between Trump and his immediate predecessors amounts to a statistical rounding error, albeit one measured in disrupted lives. As Vox's Dara Lind put it in a helpful explainer, the latest roundups are both "fairly standard and newly terrifying."
You have heard the individual horror stories, and they deserve your attention: the Mexican national arrested at an El Paso courthouse while trying to file a restraining order against her allegedly violent boyfriend; the woman who crossed north of the border at age 14, eventually gave birth to a U.S. citizen, and was greeted at her annual ICE check-in with a deportation order.
The recent raids, however, were planned before Trump had lifted a finger on immigration policy, ICE Field Office Director for Los Angeles David Marin told reporters. And of the 161 people arrested in the California sweeps, "all but five would've been cases we would've prioritized for enforcement previously."
Much of what Trump has done is set the immigration enforcement clock all the way back to 2013. The Secure Communities federal/local data-sharing program that Trump is exhuming was only shuttered by Obama at the end of 2014. The resumed collection of non-targeted "collateral" aliens during immigration raids was the norm well past the 2012 Democratic National Convention paean to "DREAMers."
Even Trump's announced intentions to prioritize the expulsion of "bad hombres" has echoes of Obama in both policy and rhetoric. As recently as 2015, the 44th president described his approach as "making sure that people who are dangerous, people who are gangbangers or criminals, that we're deporting them as quickly as possible, that we're focusing our resources there." Trump is hardly the first resident of 1600 Pennsylvania to be tagged as the "deporter in chief."
Observing these continuities is no mere exercise in Whataboutism. You cannot hope to rouse a winning defense against President Bad Intentions without grappling with the damage wrought by President Good Intentions. The fact is, starting with the 2006 collapse of comprehensive immigration reform, successive pro-reform administrations deliberately used stepped-up enforcement as a political tool—George W. Bush to call the bluff on restrictionists who derailed a treasured second-term goal, Obama to build up "credibility" for legislative negotiations that never took off.
When we give that much power and discretion to the president, and subject millions of lives to the passions of national politics, whimsical and arbitrary punishment will be the norm, not the exception.
By insisting that reform be "comprehensive," advocates set themselves up to fail, partly because immigration policy is complicated, partly because Washington doesn't do anything big particularly well. By tethering every consideration of illegal residents to a citizenship pathway, Democrats aroused electorally motivated opposition. And by treating illegal immigration as a crime problem rather than a prohibition problem, Republicans nurtured the fantasy that if only they had a president with his heart in the right place, we could finally enforce this so-called crisis out of existence.
Instead of addressing the root cause of immigration illegality—a legal-visa regime out of whack with both supply and demand—legislators have punted the issue to an executive branch already swollen with authority. Courts have pruned back some of Trump's ambitions, but eventually the president will get good enough lawyers to get most of what he wants, and that includes fewer legal immigrants in most every category, and enforcement that aims to top even the records set by his predecessor.
It's good that Americans are becoming newly aware that the CBP maintains 170 or so internal immigration checkpoints within 100 miles of the border, and that residents without green cards experience dread with each trip to the airport. But this dysfunctional system was around long before Trump escalatored into our lives, and unless we confront the problem honestly, it'll continue long after he's gone.
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.