The United States is in an age of mass deportation. This may not be surprising, given how consistently President Trump has denigrated, demonized, and threatened immigrants. His administration has waged an assault on the entire immigration system, shutting down access to asylum, pressuring the immigration courts to churn out removal orders, and adopting rules that narrowed the avenues to legal immigration and crippled US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers it. According to the most recent official figures, from the beginning of Trump’s term through September 2019 his administration carried out more than 584,000 formal deportations. As of last October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was monitoring more than 3.2 million cases of immigrants who were in active deportation proceedings.
Yet despite Trump’s repeated warnings that he planned to expel more than one million unauthorized immigrants, he has not reached the numbers achieved by President Obama, whose administration expelled over three million people and holds the record for formal deportations in a year—more than 432,000 in 2013. Trump has remained preoccupied with the Mexican border and constructing his wall. He has also been increasing ICE’s funding and staff, which now numbers more than 20,000. In doing so, he has built on a steady expansion of immigration enforcement initiated two decades ago, in response to the September 11 attacks.
The deportation system held sway over immigrant communities long before Trump became president, but under his direction it has become even more far-reaching, arbitrary, and cruel. Immigrants have regularly been arrested at home and work, sometimes as “collateral” when ICE has come looking for someone else. They’ve been handed off to ICE after being arrested by local police, often for minor offenses. They’ve been picked up from county jails and courthouses and detained at highway checkpoints. Some were abruptly deported after appearing at ICE offices for routine check-ins. At times these enforcement actions made news, as when ICE swept into chicken-processing plants in Mississippi on August 7, 2019, in a blitz that yielded 680 arrests. But in general, they have attracted little attention.
Because of orders Trump issued early in his administration that made any immigrant without legal status vulnerable to deportation, families have been increasingly separated. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has risen and fallen, but since 2004 it has remained at more than 10 million. Many are settled in American communities and have mixed-status families, with some members who are undocumented, others who may have some kind of legal immigration papers, and others—mostly children—who are American citizens. When the head of a household is deported, these families are shattered and can plunge into poverty. The abrupt banishing of a parent leaves children hurt, disoriented, and angry. Undocumented family members who remain are forced into an existence framed in fear. Yet the country has not tended to view deportation as a punitive measure, like incarceration, even though its effects on communities can be no less disastrous.