President Donald Trump wants a border wall so badly that he’s willing to sustain what on Saturday became the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.
But for all his bluster, Trump has not racked up the draconian immigration enforcement record he threatened from the campaign trail. By the most important enforcement metric, deportations, Trump has trailed far behind his more liberal predecessor Barack Obama.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported about 95,000 people from the interior of the United States last year. Interior deportations in Obama’s first three years in office topped 200,000 annually. Only in his final two years in office did Obama register numbers lower than Trump’s.
Trump’s comparatively low deportation numbers are no coincidence: They are a direct result of the administration’s chaotic attempts to overhaul the immigration system. Each ill-planned and legally dubious move the Trump administration makes to change the enforcement system clogs up some part of the federal bureaucracy and makes it harder for the administration to achieve its stated goals.
The Self-Defeating Quest For The Wall
Trump’s fixation on the wall ― or fence, or steel slats, or “peaches,” or whatever he’s calling it this week ― is a great example of how his policies tend to kneecap immigration enforcement.
The federal government is responsible for enforcing immigration law, so no one truly obsessed with deporting people would allow the federal government to shut down because that would further jam up a complex enforcement system that is already backlogged in the federal courts by more than 1 million cases.
That’s exactly what’s happening. The country’s immigration courts are largely closed. Those who miss their court dates because of the shutdown are getting sent to the back of the line, according to The New York Times ― which can mean delays of up to four years. As of last week, nearly 43,000 hearings had been canceled, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse project at Syracuse University ― with an additional 20,000 or so cancellations expected for every week the shutdown drags on.
These are not the kinds of results one would expect with a hard-liner in the White House. But it’s a perfectly logical outcome for Trump, who campaigned on a border wall to solve a contrived crisis of illegal immigration at a time when unauthorized crossings stood at 45-year lows.
Terrifying Migrant Communities, But Making Deportations Harder
Trump’s other actions have undermined enforcement, too. Within a week of taking office, he signed a sweeping executive order that, among other things, did away with Obama-era prosecutorial discretion guidelines that had directed ICE to focus its arrests on people with serious criminal records, recent border-crossers or people with previous deportations on their records. The message, which Trump’s first acting director of ICE, Thomas Homan, repeated often, was clear: No one would be exempt from enforcement of federal law.
It was terrifying for migrant communities, which now feared more indiscriminate enforcement. But it also undermined the goal of increasing deportations, because it’s a more complicated and longer process to remove someone from the country who has a clean criminal record and the right to a hearing before an immigration judge.
Moving Judges To The Border ― And Slowing Deportation Cases
Likewise, the Trump administration shuffled judges to the border in an attempt to rush through the cases of Central American families that have shown up in larger numbers in recent years, often requesting asylum ― effectively putting cases guaranteed to be lengthy at the front of the jam-packed docket. But the judges didn’t share then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ enthusiasm for disposing of asylum cases quickly and skeptically. And the backlog in their home jurisdictions grew, too.
Polarizing Politics And Pushing Liberal Jurisdictions To Protect Immigrants
On top of all this, the Trump administration’s hostility toward migrants and hyper-polarization of the immigration issue has made Democratic-led jurisdictions far more likely to embrace “sanctuary” policies limiting cooperation with ICE than they were under Obama. The consequence of Trump’s lack of diplomacy is that ICE now has far less leeway to make arrests at local jails than it once did, reducing the agency’s efficiency.
More Money, Fewer Results
So, now the president who entered office promising to deport up to 3 million people is actually removing far fewer people than the Democrat who preceded him ― even though ICE’s budget ballooned by more than 15 percent to $7.1 billion last year. And Trump’s fixation on securing partial funding for a wall is only making him more inefficient.
None of this should be particularly surprising. Trump has fabricated a vision of the border untethered from reality to sell his wall proposal. But it has become increasingly common, as the shutdown drags on, for Trump’s Republican backers in Congress to defend the president’s intransigence as a common-sense plea for a long overdue commitment to a more vaguely defined “border security.”
But there’s no unusual crisis at the border other than a high number of Central American families and children, who hardly present a security threat. And to judge from Trump’s record so far, he’s more committed to the idea of a wall, regardless of the cost, than to actual immigration enforcement.
Some of this turns out to be good news for Trump’s critics. When Trump took over the White House, he inherited an enforcement system capable of expelling a quarter-million migrants from the interior annually. But if the shutdown debacle offers any insight into his thinking, it would appear Trump does not care. He’d rather have a wall.