A young Afghan girl who has lived in Providence, Rhode Island, for several years regularly attends a youth mentoring programme run by a refugee support group. Each time she has worn a hijab, until this week when she was too afraid to show in public that she is a Muslim.
Halfway across the country, Daniela Vargas - a 22-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi - was half-asleep when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came for her family two weeks ago. Her father, a decorator, had kissed her goodbye on his way to work, before being arrested on their driveway. Her brother, a construction worker, had also been detained. At first, Daniela herself was not arrested; she is a ‘Dreamer’, protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme. But on March 1, as she left a news conference organised by local activists to highlight the benefits of immigration, she was detained.
Such stories depict a new reality for refugees, along with ethnic and religious minorities, living in Donald Trump’s America. In his debut address to Congress on Tuesday the new president appeared to soften his stance on immigration, but many fear the damage has already been done. Just five weeks into his term, Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric and hard-line policies appear to be undoing the stitches that hold together America’s vast multicultural patchwork.
Barack Obama was seen by many as ‘deporter-in-chief’, having overseen the deportation of over 2.5 million people - more than every 20th-century US president combined. Nonetheless, many of those at risk think that President Trump’s immigration crackdown is different.
Omar Bah, founder of the Refugee Dream Centre in Rhode Island, told The World Weekly that President Trump “has made it look like being a refugee is a crime”. He said “there is a lot of angst, fear and uncertainty. Because of the Trump narrative, the picture they’re putting across is that all refugees are Muslims from the Middle East, and they’re all terrorists.”
Immigrants are President Trump’s chief scapegoat, particularly when it comes to crime. In his congressional address, Mr. Trump unveiled VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement), a new arm of immigration enforcement which will publish a weekly record of crimes committed by “aliens”, who are to be named and shamed. But the realities of American crime belie the sentiment. The Pew Research Centre has shown that first-generation, adolescent immigrants are 10% less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Recent analysis by the Cato Institute puts the chances of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist on US soil at roughly one in 3.64 billion.
The presence of both legal and illegal immigrant workers in the labour market makes the US economy an estimated $1.6 trillion richer each year. “What better way,” a spokesperson for the Latino Community Association in Oregon asked TWW, “to destroy our economy than to ship out our immigrant workforce? This will not make America great.”
Full steam ahead
Since taking office, the president has sought to tackle immigration on two fronts. First, at its external borders through building a Great Wall of Mexico and imposing a travel ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. On top of this, the Department of Homeland Security announced measures that drastically expanded immigration agencies’ power to arrest and deport those in the US illegally.
On February 6, ICE officers arrested 680 people in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and San Antonio. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described these measures as a continuation of Obama-era policies that had been in place “for many years”, but the flurry of raids was seen by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union - which rushed to publish explainers on how to act in the event of an ICE raid - as the opening shot in a new war.
The number of people expelled may not yet set the Trump administration apart, but the way deportations are being carried out distinguishes it from its predecessor. Take the case of Irving Gonzales in El Paso, who was arrested inside a county courthouse moments after she had received a protective order as a victim of domestic abuse.
Her story is one of many. In Alexandria, Virginia, agents recently waited across the street from a church, detaining several Latino immigrants as they left a cold weather shelter. Near Seattle, immigration officials raided the home of a convicted Mexican drug trafficker. They also picked up his son, part of the DACA programme, who had no criminal record and held a legal permit to work in the US.
When incidents like these occurred under President Obama, Human Rights Watch's Clara Long told TWW, the White House would usually apologise or excuse them as the misdemeanour of an overzealous agent. Now, she noted, immigration agencies are “going full steam ahead”.
Widening the net
Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International, said President Trump’s executive orders and the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security’s powers “are taking the shackles off” US immigration policy.
Previously, a system of prioritisation dictated who would be targeted. It tended to give primacy to undocumented immigrants charged with crimes such as serious violence or sexual assault. The new administration, Mr. Mazzola said, has “expanded who is considered a priority”. Not only are people who have been convicted of crimes - even low-level ones - being targeted, but also those who are awaiting conviction.
ICE appears to have adopted a scattergun approach. Elizabeth Foydel, a policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said there had been “a lot of spontaneous raids”, with agents “going into workplaces and looking for people” rather than tracking down individuals who may have come to their attention by having a criminal record.
Bob Libal, executive director of the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas, agreed that the Trump administration has widened ICE’s “dredge-net”. He shared the story of two Latino brothers in Austin who had got up on a Saturday morning to go to work, and had been cornered by ICE agents in the parking lot of their apartment complex. The agents had been looking for someone else, but they asked the brothers if they had papers. They did not. One of the brothers was back in Mexico by Saturday evening.
Many of those apprehended by ICE are detained rather than deported. According to Mr. Libal, we can expect a “massive expansion” of the detention system. There are reports that immigration detention centres previously shuttered due to high-profile cases of violence, sexual and psychological abuse might be reopened. A recent New York Times op-ed asked whether these detention centres are the next Abu Ghraib. That, Mr. Libal said, is “very telling”.
Making America hate again
Vigilantism and violence against minority communities also appears to be on the rise. Last Thursday two Indian men who worked for the technology firm Garmin were having a drink in Olathe, around 20 miles southwest of Kansas City, when a gunman charged into the bar and opened fire, killing 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla and injuring his companion. The shooter reportedly said “get out of my country”, and told witnesses that he had shot and killed two Iranians.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Kuchibhotla’s death was tragic but that it would be “absurd” to link the shooting to President Trump’s strong rhetoric on immigration. President Trump himself did not address the attack until five days after it took place. Until his speech in Congress, Mr. Trump also appeared reluctant to condemn a recent spike in anti-Semitism. Jewish schools and community centres have received over 100 bomb threats since January 9, while several Jewish cemeteries have been vandalised.
‘We’re here to stay’
Mr. Bah said that many Muslim refugees in Providence “are hiding in their homes, they do not want to go out”. Thanu Yakupitiyage, who works at the New York Immigration Coalition, concurred, citing instances of parents keeping their children from school, and children being prescribed anti-anxiety medicine to cope with the “really crippling fear” that their parents will be deported.
A sharp rise in illegal border crossings to Canada may show refugees are beginning to turn their backs on the US. Don Piett, editor of the Southeast Journal in Emerson, Manitoba, told TWW that 142 asylum seekers had already crossed into his town in 2017, versus 300 in the whole of 2016.
Many see this as evidence that the principle of tolerance inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is under threat. “A lot of people are attracted to the US by values of inclusion, dignity and openness,” said Ms. Yakupitiyage, who migrated from Sri Lanka 13 years ago. She sees Mr. Trump’s immigration policies as “the antithesis to these values”.
“I want to emphasise,” says Mr. Bah, a refugee himself, “that there is nothing to fear, we only do good for this country.” He is not alone in that view. Atif Fareed, chairman of the American Muslim Community Center in central Florida, told TWW “there are 100 good people for one hater” - but it's the haters who make the news. “We are living the American dream,” Mr. Fareed insists. “This is who we are, we’re here to stay.”