Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
He was right on schedule.
On Monday night, President Donald Trump fired off another tweet, just one day before he is set to kick off his re-election campaign before his faithful base in Florida. It was reckless.
Cueing up his signature issue, he tweeted, “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in.”
The President went on to blame congressional Democrats for the refugee crisis at the southern border, adding that if they fixed what he called “loopholes” in asylum laws, “Border Crisis will end quickly!”
Where to begin?
These kind of statements are nonsensical – logistically, legally or even as a policy. What we see here is a chief executive who is well aware of his vulnerability to a Democratic challenger, desperately trying to rile up his followers by bashing immigrants. After several years of draconian immigration policies and optics, including images of children separated from their families and kept in pens, it is unlikely to persuade voters in 2020.
A legal and political nightmare
The President’s tweet, on its own, was astonishing: For starters, deporting millions in the manner he suggests would be a legal and political nightmare. Let’s pause to think of what it might look like on the ground: a new climate of fear, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials apprehending immigrants as they leave their homes for work, go with their families to church, drive in their neighborhoods, or get off planes.
Buses and planeloads of migrants shipped away, families destroyed and communities upended. And many of these families have children with US citizenship.
We don’t have to imagine it; this administration has done it already – although on a smaller scale – and the outcry from civil rights organizations, advocacy lawyers and everyday citizens has come swiftly.
What’s more, ICE operations are generally kept secret to maximize their effectiveness. Any large-scale immigration efforts require weeks of planning, and here Trump is basically giving a warning to migrants who might be targeted for deportation.
He is also putting law enforcement officers at risk, as those opposed to ICE now might have an opportunity to impede or interfere with their efforts.
This is ironic, given that when the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, warned her community of potential ICE raids in February 2018, the President and ICE officials criticized her and demanded that she face criminal prosecution. Now Trump has done essentially the same thing, only on a much larger scale.
Refugees have rights
The language Trump used in his tweet about migrants – inaccurate and designed to mislead– is from a familiar playbook. Trump tweeted about “the millions of illegal aliens … they will be removed as fast as they come in.” This does not make sense. The asylum seekers at the border cannot be immediately removed because they have a legal right to apply for humanitarian relief.
The Trump administration is attempting to keep many asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico while their cases are resolved. This “remain in Mexico” policy is in place for now, but it is the subject of a federal lawsuit that may well result in it being struck it down.
Although the case could, in fact, ultimately end up before the Supreme Court, the Trump administration’s policy starts off on shaky ground. That is because US statutory law says that physical presence in the US is required to claim asylum. Trump is trying to get around this through his actions and his recently-brokered deal for more cooperation on migration from Mexico.
And he is deliberately sowing confusion over the asylum and due process rights of refugees and our country’s broader illegal immigration problem; he wants the public to see the situation at our southern border as some sort of dangerous invasion, when it is really a refugee crisis.
What’s more, it is not even clear that ICE is operationally prepared to carry out mass arrests across the country. The Washington Post reports that, lately, interior immigration arrests are down, because agents are so busy dealing with processing migrants along the southern border.
Trump’s one-note immigration policy
It is equally confounding that Trump, in his tweet, praised Mexico’s efforts to stem migration when he has in the recent past regularly bashed the country as “doing nothing” on immigration. The President may suddenly find a more cooperative Mexico – strong-armed by his tariff threats – more pleasing. But it seems awfully early to crow about an agreement reached less than two weeks ago, in which Mexico agreed to stall Central American asylum seekers before they reach the US border. The deal is already generating opposition in Mexico.
President Trump has the power to set immigration policy. But the truth is that this President has only one such policy – deterrence – and it has been failing for more than two years. Deterrence, whether it took the forms of family separation, threats of tariffs or of closing the entire US-Mexico border, has not worked.
Arrivals at our southern border have increased in recent months, proving that bullying and bluster cannot fix an ongoing humanitarian crisis – one in which refugees legitimately fleeing violence and extreme poverty seek shelter and a chance at productive new life in the US, like so many immigrants have done throughout America’s history.
Meanwhile, at least six children have died after being detained by border officials in the past eight months. You won’t hear Trump mention them, or the fact that his wall remains unbuilt. He is too busy creating social media distractions. Americans must not be taken in again by this.
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Sadly, the only tools that this President has, that he feels work for him, are confusion and fear. That is what is behind his immigration tweets in particular and his fragmented, un-American immigration policies in general.
With these Monday tweets, Trump is returning to the same xenophobic themes he sounded at the beginning of his first campaign, when he labeled Mexicans as criminals – and that is as pathetic as it is predictable.