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What ‘Taking the Shackles Off’ Really Means

Trump has promised to unleash immigration agents. It is a reckless policy and no one in the administration seems to care.

February 28, 2017

President Trump’s press secretary said last week that his boss wanted to “take the shackles off” federal immigration agents, giving them more freedom to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. Evidently, this is gleeful news to some rank-and-file agents who are grateful that their law enforcement jobs—separating parents from their children, for example—will be “fun” again.

We already have seen what this “fun” means. It means arresting, detaining, and deporting even those undocumented immigrants who are not violent criminals. It means disrupting the lives of millions of people who have lived here peacefully for decades: people who contribute billions to the American economy. (According to the non-partisan Insititute on Taxation and Public Policy, undocumented immigrants pay $11.6 billion in state and local taxes annually, and The New York Times wrote in 2013, “Nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants — those here legally or not — benefit the overall economy.”)

It means custom officials now interrogate domestic air travelers at the door of a plane. It means that a U.S citizen like Muhammad Ali, Jr. the son of the iconic boxer, can be detained for hours at the Fort Lauderdale airport on his return to his native country and asked: “Are you a Muslim?” It means that a noted Egyptian-born historian from France can be detained and almost deported after he arrives in Houston to attend an academic symposium. “[T]he United States is no longer quite the United States,” the scholar, Henry Rousso, wrote on the French version of The Huffington Post.)

It means that federal immigration officials in Chicago can detain a U.S. citizen for three days and falsely accuse him of being an undocumented immigrant. It means that Mem Fox, a well-known children’s book author in Australia, can be detained and aggressively questioned at Los Angeles International Airport. “I am old and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently,” she said later. “Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in her 80s, in a wheelchair. The way I was treated would have made any decent American shocked to the core, because that’s not America as a whole, it really isn’t.” ”

These episodes are not merely a series of coincidental errors. They are not just the results of an unwieldly bureaucracy. This sanctioned unleashing of aggressive immigration tactics is precisely what the administration seeks and what those law enforcement unions were hoping for when they backed Trump’s presidential bid last year. They evidently felt underappreciated even as the Obama administration deported a record 2.7 million immigrants. For these Trump supporters in uniform, the news just keeps getting better. Over the weekend, for example, we learned that the administration is so anxious to hire thousands of new Border Patrol agents that it is considering asking Congress to relax the job’s hiring requirements.

It is unclear whether this means fewer background checks, or fewer lie detector tests, or fewer entrance exams, or some combination of the above. It is equally unclear whether Congress will grant such a dubious request. But if it does, and the Trump team gets its way, the result is clear: federal immigrant agents will be even less qualified to properly perform their constitutional duties than they are today. And that means there will be even more unshackled “fun” at the expense of undocumented immigrants and anyone and everyone else caught up in the Trump’s administration’s ever-widening net.

Granting federal immigration agents more discretion and authority while at the same time guaranteeing that more sketchy candidates will join their ranks is patently bad policy that will result in a wave of unconstitutional (and no doubt deadly) incidents. This obvious corollary seems no more of a concern to administration officials than does the broader question of what will happen to the American economy once all these undocumented mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, are deported.

Take horse racing, for example. Insiders are already concerned about what will happen once the Trump team cleans out the hardworking immigrants who have the skill to care for horses. In California, meanwhile, the very farm owners who backed Trump now say they are shocked—shocked!—that he is doing precisely what he promised by emptying their fields of the immigrant farm workers upon which they depend.

In Florida, one prominent grower expressed a brave thought in a cowardly way. “You can actually make a good living—$15, $20 an hour if you’re good at this—but the truth is Americans don’t want to do this work,” said the farmer, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal by our president and his team.

On and on the second-guessing and second thoughts go. Overseas travelers to the U.S. spent about $148 billion in 2015 and tourism is an industry that has a trade surplus. Now what does the world think about visiting the U.S., a country run by a hotelier? “Every time a story comes out about challenges at customs and border patrol, a potential tourist to the U.S. may get cold feet,” Jason Clampet, editor of the travel industry website Skift, told The Boston Globe.

There is no reason to think that anyone who matters within the Trump administration is working on how to deal with the adverse economic ramifications of the coming immigration sweeps. And there is no reason to believe that anyone who matters within the Trump administration is working on how to deal with the looming problem of handing badges and weapons to unqualified Border Patrol recruits. Just like there was no reason to think that anyone who matters within the administration had a clue about what to do about replacing the increasingly-popular Affordable Care Act.

But back to federal immigration enforcement. It says something significant that some local police officials are telling Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents not to identify themselves as “police” when they stage their raids. It says that veteran law enforcement officials understand what it means when government agents take “the shackles off” when treating civilians. It means abuse and neglect. It means harassment and humiliation. It means inordinate pressure on the judiciary, and the bar, to identify and remedy the coming excesses.

Nothing good will come from the unleashing of federal immigration agents. What makes it even worse is that those in charge seem to know but not to care.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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