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OP-ED: Vengeance drives Trump immigration policy

Angela Stuesse
Tribune News Service
A group of migrants that were requesting asylum are returned to Mexico at El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana. The individuals will wait in Mexico until their scheduled court date in the United States. A judge in California on Monday blocked a Trump administration policy requiring some asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in the U.S. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Recently, it came to light that the Trump administration has been pressuring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release immigrant detainees to “sanctuary cities” in order to target the president’s political opposition.

On at least two occasions, the White House pushed ICE to transport detained immigrants across the country and release them in small-to-medium sized municipalities that have refused to cooperate with ICE’s deportation regime. They reportedly proposed to target Democratic strongholds, including and especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco.

“It was retaliation, to show them, ‘Your lack of cooperation has impacts,’” a Department of Homeland Security official told the Washington Post.

On March 1, 2017, just a month into Trump’s presidency and exactly two weeks after her father and brother had been taken in a raid at her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, Dany Vargas was arrested by ICE following an impassioned speech she gave at a press conference organized by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. The afternoon before, Vargas rehearsed her speech with me on the phone, hopeful that her family’s story might make a difference.

What we couldn’t foresee at that time was that she was to become one of the first in a growing chain of immigrant rights defenders targeted with retaliatory detention and deportation. As the Washington Post reported, high-profile organizers and movement leaders have been detained and deported in New York, Colorado and Washington. Lawsuits alleging the targeting of immigrant leaders have been filed in Washington and Vermont.

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Most recently, on April 2, Argentine activist Claudio Rojas, who speaks out in the documentary film “The Infiltrators,” was deported just as the film was beginning its run on the festival circuit.

Documents leaked to a news outlet in San Diego reveal that journalists and social media influencers are also being targeted, in a secret database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. It is used to subject these individuals to additional levels of screening and harassment when they travel abroad or seek reentry to the United States.

The will to enact revenge is also on display in the uptick of community raids on neighborhoods and workplaces. Just days after Vargas’ arrest, a federal judge in Texas confirmed that an ICE raid in Austin, Texas, had been carried out in response to the local sheriff’s adoption of a “sanctuary” policy. Since then, news stories have continued to surface linking community raids to municipalities that adopt “sanctuary” policies to promote community safety and create a more welcoming environment for newcomers.

In March, immigration raids across central North Carolina, the place I call home, targeted the counties of four newly elected Democratic sheriffs who are refusing to cooperate with ICE, detaining more than 200 community members. The American Civil Liberties Union called it a “retaliatory detention rampage.”

Following the operations, ICE spokesperson Sean Gallagher confirmed, “This is the new normal. … It is the direct conclusion of dangerous policies of not cooperating with ICE. This forces my officers to go out on the street to conduct more enforcement operations.”

We have long known that Trump is vengeful in many spheres of his life — his business dealings, his personal life, and even his interactions with members of his own cabinet. We now see his desire for retribution is driving this major policy arena of his administration as well, with disastrous consequences.

Looking forward to the 2020 electoral campaigns, let us push all candidates to present agendas that are well-reasoned, humane, and in the best interest of all. Retribution as motivator of policy only results in chaos — and calls for more destructive emergency action.

A policy driven by vengeance endangers immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike, chills free speech, and, ultimately, erodes our democracy.

— Angela Stuesse is a cultural anthropologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. This column was produced with the support of the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.