Some of the darkest chapters in U.S. history have involved forcibly relocating minority populations: the slave trade, the Trail of Tears, Operation Wetback and the internment of citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II. Each was considered legal and justified in its time. Now they are condemned as assaults on the values that define our nation.
President Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration and the draft enforcement memos signed by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly promise to similarly tarnish our nation’s character. The memos call for expanding the nation’s deportation forces by 15,000 to round up, detain and deport the undocumented immigrants living among us. Instead of focusing on criminals, they make all undocumented people priorities for enforcement, and through a process called “expedited removal,” they severely reduce due process protections.
The policy is based on falsehoods about the threat and costs of undocumented immigrants. “The surge of immigration at the southern border has overwhelmed federal agencies and resources and has created a significant national security vulnerability to the United States,” Kelly’s memorandum stated.
The truth is far less dramatic. The number of undocumented immigrants is down. More people are leaving the United States than are arriving. The only rise in immigration is among women and children fleeing violence in dangerous parts of Central America.
And the cost of the undocumented? Their contributions to the economy far outweigh their burden. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants pay $11.6 billion in taxes each year. According to the Social Security Administration, undocumented workers contribute $15 billion annually to the fund, but only withdraw an estimated $1 billion.
There’s also little evidence that most undocumented immigrants pose a threat to national security. In fact, studies have confirmed that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
No one opposes removing violent criminals from our midst, but unleashing a massive deportation force while cutting back on due process protections is a recipe for disaster. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recently ran a “routine” raid of immigrants targeting “criminal aliens” that picked up 678 detainees in 12 states. Among them was a woman who turned to the police for a restraining order against her boyfriend only to be abducted. A woman who was a resident of Phoenix for 20 years was also deported, leaving behind her two U.S.-citizen children. They are hardly security threats, but will be “enforcement priorities” under Homeland Security’s new policy.
Hard data on the numbers of citizens unlawfully detained by ICE are hard to find, but studies indicate it’s significant. Such “mistakes” are inherent in a process with few safeguards: Unlike criminal courts, those detained by immigration agents aren’t granted access to a lawyer.
For Latinos, this is an existential moment. Our government has declared war on our community. Think I exaggerate? Imagine scores of ICE agents sweeping through your neighborhoods, stalking people leaving church or going to the movies. People will be afraid to visit doctors; children will be afraid to go to school; crimes will go unreported. For Latinos, including those who are citizens, stepping outside without papers could be cause for arrest.
For 20 years, Congress has stalled on immigration reform, preferring instead to keep its favorite bogeyman around to exploit on Election Day. In that time, undocumented people have put down roots, married into our families, borne our children, attended our churches and shared our burdens. Tearing them from our lives will be brutal. It will leave no community untouched. More than 5 million U.S. citizens have undocumented parents. Deporting these parents will leave their children parentless, traumatized and often destitute. We would rather see these Americans achieve their potential.
We’re deploying every tool we’ve got to oppose this ill-conceived policy — in the media, in the courts and in peaceful protests in the streets. But we cannot win this battle alone. We urge federal workers who witness potential abuses to resist them and to report them to independent watchdogs. We call on Congress to deny funds for such policies. We appeal to officials in sanctuary cities to hold fast to their values and refuse to participate in perpetuating a police state. We ask our friends of faith to express their moral outrage and to remember us in their prayers. And we call on our fellow Americans to not let our country’s values be trampled in their name.
There are other — better — ways to solve this problem. Congress has come close in recent years to a bipartisan solution. We would be better served if it tried again rather than continue down this dark, shameful path. History, as always, will be watching.
Janet Murguia is president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza.