It’s Not Just About Deportations: Trump Wants To Create a Permanent Underclass

Maximillian Alvarez and William Lopez July 1, 2019

President Donald Trump pictured in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on August 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson - Pool/Getty Images)

When the Pres­i­dent announced in an omi­nous tweet two weeks ago that mass immi­gra­tion raids tar­get­ing mil­lions of ille­gal aliens” around the coun­try were immi­nent, those who would suf­fer the worst did not have the lux­u­ry of won­der­ing whether or not he was bluff­ing. Days lat­er, the worst fears of many were seem­ing­ly con­firmed as news came in that ICE agents were mobi­liz­ing to car­ry out what they and the DHS chill­ing­ly referred to as the fam­i­ly op,” which was expect­ed to include predawn raids and arrests of up to 2,000 fam­i­lies begin­ning on June 23. Com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try were brac­ing for impact. And as news broke one day before raids were set to com­mence that Pres­i­dent Trump had abrupt­ly called for a two-week post­pone­ment, undoc­u­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties were once again left with frayed nerves and an unshake­able fear that the night­mare was far from over.

As some have rea­son­ably argued, this episode demon­strates, at best, a famil­iar hard­line bar­gain­ing tac­tic that Trump is employ­ing to get what he wants from con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats, or, at worst, a cal­lous pub­lic­i­ty stunt aimed at amp­ing up Trump’s base as his re-elec­tion cam­paign launch­es in earnest. But it must be remem­bered that the peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing as a direct result of his threats are not an after­thought in this hor­rid melo­dra­ma, nor are they mere­ly col­lat­er­al dam­age in some polit­i­cal bat­tle play­ing out over their heads. They are the pri­ma­ry targets. 

Trump’s advance alerts about the raids, which clear­ly com­pro­mised ICE’s stealth (and rushed) plans to car­ry them out, and his dra­mat­ic dec­la­ra­tion of post­pone­ment just hours before the fam­i­ly op” was set to com­mence, are tell­tale signs of what these head­line-grab­bing raid threats are actu­al­ly about. Like the loud, bru­tal spec­ta­cle of phys­i­cal home and work­place raids, these threats are a trans­par­ent, cal­cu­lat­ed effort to ter­ror­ize peo­ple, their fam­i­lies and their com­mu­ni­ties.

Even if ICE doesn’t car­ry out this most recent round of planned raids, and even if such raids are ulti­mate­ly less effec­tive at deport­ing peo­ple than the Oba­ma administration’s qui­eter, more bureau­crat­ic meth­ods of immi­gra­tion enforce­ment, they are still, as far as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is con­cerned, a suc­cess.” Because it’s not about raw depor­ta­tion num­bers: It’s about the role ter­ror plays in trans­form­ing immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties into a per­ma­nent, hyper-exploit­ed underclass. 

This is why the announced post­pone­ment from Trump is by no means a cri­sis avert­ed. The effect these raids – and the threat of raids – are designed to man­u­fac­ture has already become part of our world. It hides in plain sight, beneath the mirage of busi­ness as usu­al keep­ing aver­age cit­i­zens from hav­ing to con­front the dai­ly tor­ture of peo­ple they live, work and wor­ship next to. The ter­ror is already here: It’s in people’s fear­ful good­byes every morn­ing, in the car parked across the street, in the foot­steps com­ing up the stairs.

Spec­tac­u­lar cruelty

From the dra­mat­ic increase in work­place raids and arrests car­ried out by ICE to the vicious zero-tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy that result­ed in thou­sands of fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tions, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has made it clear that the cor­ner­stone of its immi­gra­tion enforce­ment pol­i­cy is high­ly vis­i­ble and spec­tac­u­lar cru­el­ty. As report­ed in The Wash­ing­ton Post on May 13, senior pol­i­cy advis­er Stephen Miller and ICE Deputy Direc­tor Matthew Albence have expressed their eager­ness to exe­cute dra­mat­ic, high­ly vis­i­ble mass arrests that they argued would help deter the soar­ing influx of families.”

Con­sis­tent with the can­non of Trump­ism, these inhu­mane acts are, at base, a mor­bid mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy.” The cru­el­ty is the point, but not because cru­el­ty is an end in itself. As then-Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions summed up in one of his most har­row­ing speech­es, the point of all this cru­el­ty is to send a mes­sage.” And this mes­sage is designed to sow ter­ror among all mem­bers of a sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed under­class, fur­ther secur­ing their subordination. 

The per­verse desire to man­u­fac­ture such ter­ror echoes through­out the admin­is­tra­tion. If you’re in this coun­try ille­gal­ly … you should be uncom­fort­able,” then-ICE Act­ing Direc­tor Thomas Homan told the House Appro­pri­a­tions Committee’s Home­land Secu­ri­ty Sub­com­mit­tee in 2017. You should look over your shoul­der, and you need to be worried.” 

As a result of this ter­ror, plen­ty more undoc­u­ment­ed migrants will leave or be forced out of the coun­try: The num­ber of immi­gra­tion arrests, depor­ta­tions and work­place raids is ris­ing. As The Mar­shall Project reports, vol­un­tary depar­tures” — or self-depor­ta­tions,” as Mitt Rom­ney has described them — have also increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Trump sup­port­ers have cit­ed this increase as proof that the Pres­i­den­t’s immi­gra­tion enforce­ment pol­i­cy is work­ing as promised. 

But when Trump and his sub­or­di­nates repeat­ed­ly and pub­licly stress the need to remove all undoc­u­ment­ed migrants and end ille­gal immi­gra­tion,” they aren’t so much detail­ing the administration’s immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy as help­ing to enforce it. These words do more than they describe: They are air-born poi­son, mak­ing us sick and scared. Because, for Trump and the larg­er sys­tems of class and racial dom­i­na­tion his admin­is­tra­tion serves, phys­i­cal­ly expelling undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple from the U.S. is ulti­mate­ly less of a con­crete pri­or­i­ty than cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for mil­lions of peo­ple to live in con­stant fear that they could be next. 

A life of exploita­tion and precariousness

This max­i­mal­ist rhetoric becomes increas­ing­ly appar­ent the more we weigh the stat­ed goals of Trump’s immi­gra­tion enforce­ment pol­i­cy against the con­crete steps his admin­is­tra­tion has tak­en to enact it. If the pre­sumed goal is to end ille­gal imm­gra­tion while expelling as many undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple from the U.S. as pos­si­ble, then his­to­ry strong­ly sug­gests that Trump’s pre­ferred means for doing so won’t work. The recent increase in work­place raids is a case in point.

There’s a rea­son work­place raids had seem­ing­ly gone away – until Trump brought them roar­ing back. It was in May of 2008 when Postville, Iowa, a fac­to­ry town with a pop­u­la­tion just a nose above 2,000, bore wit­ness to one of the largest ICE work­place raids in U.S. his­to­ry, which result­ed in 398 arrests. The town itself became a bleak mon­u­ment to the era of major work­place raids, which seemed to have melt­ed into his­to­ry along with the Bush administration.

The dev­as­ta­tion and out­cry in the wake of the Postville raid was vast and sur­pris­ing­ly effec­tive in turn­ing the pub­lic against the Bush administration’s hard­line approach. And over the next eight years, due in part to the cat­a­stro­phe of Postville, the incom­ing Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion would end up tak­ing a less pub­lic, more bureau­crat­ic approach to immi­gra­tion enforce­ment. Though it didn’t avoid them entire­ly, the Oba­ma administration’s strat­e­gy focused less on phys­i­cal work­place raids and more on I‑9 audits, or paper raids.” This strat­e­gy proved to be far more effec­tive and pub­licly palat­able than Bush’s Postville play­book: Oba­ma, the Deporter-in-Chief,” still holds the title for most depor­ta­tions car­ried out dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial term.

If Obama’s silent raid” approach proved to be a chill­ing­ly more effec­tive method for hunt­ing and deport­ing peo­ple than the work­place raids of the Bush era, then why is the Trump admin­is­tra­tion dead set on bring­ing work­place raids back? Pro­po­nents of the Trump doc­trine tend to respond by extolling the val­ue of the deter­rent” effect of such tac­tics, but this defense doesn’t real­ly hold up either. As any immi­gra­tion schol­ar or advo­cate could tell you, there’s scant evi­dence that increas­es in raids will deter undoc­u­ment­ed migrants from enter­ing the coun­try, nor will they push more than a frac­tion to leave the coun­try vol­un­tar­i­ly.”

It is a doc­u­ment­ed fact that, rather than leave their jobs when the threat of raids and depor­ta­tions looms large, undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers will sub­ject them­selves — out of fear and neces­si­ty — to greater exploita­tion, wage theft and pre­car­i­ous­ness. Employ­ers, in turn, will seize on the oppor­tu­ni­ty” to squeeze as much sur­plus val­ue out of work­ers under the coer­cive threat of destroy­ing their lives and fam­i­lies with one phone call. From boss­es and man­agers to law enforce­ment to cit­i­zens with a grudge, any­one with even a mod­icum of pow­er will con­tin­ue to inter­nal­ize and reg­u­lar­ize the fact that they can lever­age state-sanc­tioned ter­ror to exploit, assault and shake down our most vul­ner­a­ble neigh­bors, class­mates and cowork­ers. And the vast major­i­ty of undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple will con­tin­ue to live and work in the cracks of the Amer­i­can dream, increas­ing­ly rel­e­gat­ed to a high­ly exploitable, bare-life exis­tence that is both out­side” of our sys­tems of gov­er­nance and com­merce and entire­ly inte­gral to their functioning. 

The per­ma­nent underclass

His­to­ry,” as K‑Sue Park writes in the Har­vard Law Review, instructs us to look past what self-depor­ta­tion pol­i­cy avows to what it accom­plish­es in the con­tem­po­rary envi­ron­ment.” And beyond what Trump’s immi­gra­tion enforce­ment régime claims or avows to do, what it effec­tive­ly accom­plish­es is the sub­or­di­na­tion of an ever-widen­ing pop­u­la­tion vul­ner­a­ble to exploita­tion and not desired as a part of the nation’s poli­ty” — a sec­ond class of cheap, exploitable non-cit­i­zens and per­pet­u­al polit­i­cal scape­goats that our polit­i­cal sys­tem depends on. “[T]he pres­ence of these indi­vid­u­als may be tol­er­a­ble or even desir­able,” Park con­tin­ues, as long as they remain com­pli­ant with the policy.”

What appear to be inef­fi­cien­cies in the Trump administration’s (avowed) immi­gra­tion enforce­ment pol­i­cy have nev­er­the­less served to effec­tive­ly secure and ampli­fy the sub­or­di­na­tion of a great domes­tic under­class. As for extend­ed bor­der con­trol depor­ta­tion,” Daniel Kanstroom writes in Depor­ta­tion Nation, his­to­ry shows how poor­ly that sys­tem has actu­al­ly worked. It has func­tioned pri­mar­i­ly as a labor con­trol device, a kind of extra tool in the hands of large busi­ness­es (and, for that mat­ter, Amer­i­can fam­i­lies seek­ing nan­nies, gar­den­ers, and so forth) to pro­vide a cheap, flex­i­ble, and large­ly right­less labor sup­ply. Worse, it has facil­i­tat­ed selec­tive enforce­ment against par­tic­u­lar racial and eth­nic groups.”

State-man­u­fac­tured ter­ror is — as it’s always been—a vital tool in this his­tor­i­cal strug­gle for class and racial dom­i­na­tion. It is a vicious­ly potent means for keep­ing work­ers, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties down. If it is sup­pos­ed­ly a sign of fail­ure that our immi­gra­tion sys­tem has yet to find and deport over 10 mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple, then it is a hor­ri­fy­ing sign of suc­cess that the machin­ery of state ter­ror con­tin­ues to iso­late, oppress and drain this sub­or­di­nat­ed pop­u­la­tion for all it’s worth. The threat of raids from the high­est offi­cial in office sends a son­ic effect of fear through our immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties — it affects us all,” Diana Marin, super­vis­ing attor­ney at the Michi­gan Immi­grant Rights Cen­ter, told In These Times. It sends peo­ple into hid­ing, unwill­ing to inter­act with school, police, any state affil­i­at­ed insti­tu­tions. It saps resources from orga­ni­za­tions work­ing with immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties as they work to put into action emer­gency plans.”

The mea­sur­able dimen­sions in which this ter­ror sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly works peo­ple over are wide and var­ied: It is scorched onto their bod­ies and brains, it mars their social and psy­chic lives. For instance, in a 2017 study pub­lished in the Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Epi­demi­ol­o­gy, Nicole L. Novak, Arline Geron­imus and Are­sha Mar­tinez-Car­doso stud­ied the effects of the 2008 raid in Postville on low­er birth weights (LBW) in White and Lati­na moth­ers in Iowa. They found that the rates of LBW were steady among White and Lati­na moth­ers in the 2 years pre­ced­ing the raid, but that rates of LBW rose only among Lati­na moth­ers after the raid.” For Lat­inxs in Iowa — undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple and cit­i­zens alike — the ter­ror from the raid was phys­i­cal­ly passed onto the next generation. 

This is to say noth­ing of the many oth­er phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, social and civic reg­is­ters in which the ter­ror man­i­fests, inten­si­fy­ing the cumu­la­tive sub­or­di­na­tion of the racial­ized under­class. In a pol­i­cy state­ment, the Soci­ety for Com­mu­ni­ty Research and Action notes, Immi­grant chil­dren liv­ing in com­mu­ni­ties where immi­gra­tion raids have tak­en place feel aban­doned, iso­lat­ed, fear­ful, trau­ma­tized, and depressed.” The paper notes that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are often more fear­ful and mis­trust­ful of pub­lic insti­tu­tions, less like­ly to par­tic­i­pate in church­es, schools, health clin­ics, cul­tur­al activ­i­ties and social services.”

Along with mak­ing undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple more vul­ner­a­ble, the ter­ror serves the sin­is­ter aim of dis­ap­pear­ing them from polit­i­cal life and com­mu­ni­ty, con­tin­u­al­ly erod­ing their capac­i­ty to trust in oth­ers and build sol­i­dar­i­ty. State-man­u­fac­tured ter­ror, of which the re-emer­gence of work­place raids is a func­tion­al part, con­sti­tutes a direct attack on our most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers and their loved ones — and it, in turn, con­sti­tutes an indi­rect attack on work­ers every­where. Such cal­lous­ly imposed imped­i­ments to build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with our fel­low work­ers are always a gift for the rul­ing class, for which a unit­ed work­ing class will always pose an exis­ten­tial threat.

To resist this sys­tem­at­ic assault, we need sol­i­dar­i­ty. And we need to show sol­i­dar­i­ty mate­ri­al­ly, by tak­ing care of each other

This real­ly goes to allies,” undoc­u­ment­ed activist Aly Wane urged over the phone. If you are an ally to undoc­u­ment­ed folks in your com­mu­ni­ty, first check in on them [and see] how they’re doing in terms of their men­tal health and if they have phys­i­cal needs.” 

At the end of the day,” he con­tin­ued, noth­ing beats a local com­mu­ni­ty response net­work where allies actu­al­ly step up and do the work that’s required. That includes mak­ing sure that, if there are raids in the area, that they show up, that they doc­u­ment what hap­pens, that they take the names of the offi­cers involved.” Accord­ing to Wane, That’s real­ly the last bas­tion that we have: allies step­ping up.”

Max­imil­lian Alvarez is a dual-PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. His writ­ing has been fea­tured in The Baf­fler, Boston Review, Cur­rent Affairs, Truthout, etc. He is the host of Work­ing Peo­ple, a pod­cast by, for, and about the work­ing class today.”

William Lopez is a Clin­i­cal Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan School of Pub­lic Health and Fac­ul­ty Direc­tor of Pub­lic Schol­ar­ship at the Nation­al Cen­ter for Insti­tu­tion­al Diver­si­ty. He is the author of Sep­a­rat­ed: Fam­i­ly and Com­mu­ni­ty in the After­math of an Immi­gra­tion Raid, pub­lished by Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH