Perhaps no battle in Donald Trump’s presidency will be as pitched, or public, as the coming fight over undocumented immigrants. If he pursues his stated goal of deporting two to three million undocumented immigrants, a network of pro-immigrant cities, institutions and activists is poised to make the process as visibly contentious as possible.
Trump will have authority to deport millions. While individual cases can be contested and prolonged in immigration court — the system is already overloaded — lawsuits against Trump’s executive powers or the implementation of his plan appear to have little chance of success.
Resistance to Trump will be highly variable. The entirety of California, which is home to more undocumented immigrants than any other state, seems to be moving to high alert. In Los Angeles this month, board members for the nation’s second-largest school district unanimously reiterated their commitment to “protect the data and identities of any student, family member, or school employee who may be adversely affected by any future policies or executive action that results in the collection of any personally identifiable information.”
Immigration advocates are preparing to shield students and families. In an email, activist Frank Sharry wrote: “While Trump will undoubtedly throw red meat to his nativist base, he will come up against a majority of Americans who oppose him. That is why mayors are speaking out so boldly and clearly. That is why university presidents and school superintendents are speaking out so strongly. That is why faith leaders are offering sanctuary in their places of worship. And that is why activists plan to put their bodies between federal immigration agents and our friends, co-workers and loved ones.”
In some communities, immigrants enjoy strong political and public support. Many colleges are pledging to protect undocumented students and workers. But resistance to Trump, especially in red states, could grow extremely costly.
Trump can inflict a lot of pain on governments and institutions that defy him. Millions in federal funding could be tied to cooperation, or lack of it, with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Arizona State University president Michael Crow issued a letter last week supporting continuation of President Barack Obama’s deferred action for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.
Crow’s letter is a kindly gesture, but it makes no assurances that the university will protect undocumented immigrants. Arizona isn’t California. The Arizona Legislature passed an aggressive anti-immigrant law in 2010; Trump won the state by a margin of four points. At Iowa State University, in a state that Trump won by more than nine points, administrators issued a Pollyanna statement on undocumented students that seems as dreamy as it is noncommittal. “We have heard nothing from federal or state authorities to suggest there will be any changes impacting the status of undocumented students’ relationships with the university,” read the statement.
Once Trump is in the White House, everything could be very different. “We are bracing for a crackdown that, if not repelled, could go down as one of the darkest chapters in American history,” Sharry said. “Trump’s election has plunged millions of immigrant families into crisis. This isn’t a bug but a feature of the Trump strategy.”
Both sides of this battle have been primed for success. Immigration restrictionists view Trump’s election as national validation of their cause. Meanwhile, many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US had expected a path to legalisation or citizenship by now. The Senate passed legislation with such a path in 2013 by more than two to one.
As Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the restrictionist Centre for Immigration Studies, told the New York Times, the Trump forces and pro-immigrant activists are now engaged in a game of “chicken.” If neither side veers off course, the resulting crash could rattle the nation.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View