Andrew J. Nilsen
Advocates fear the sprawling immigrant detention complex will grow under president-elect Trump, who has vowed to ramp up deportations – including of so-called "dreamers" brought to the country as children.
Diego Mancha avoided election-night watch parties Tuesday. Instead, he sat in his living room glued to the TV, anxiously surfing the channels. “I just didn’t want to be around people,” he says. “I was just too nervous.” It felt like every time he landed on the news, another key state had gone for Donald Trump. His stomach started to hurt.
Undocumented immigrants like Mancha—the kind who were brought to this country as young children, who went to high school here, who are virtually indistinguishable from any other American twenty-something—had a lot riding on this election. Not only did president-elect Trump jumpstart his campaign with a potent strain of anti-immigrant rhetoric (calling Mexicans “rapists” in one of his earliest speeches), but he vowed to deport even more immigrants than did President Barack Obama, who himself earned the title “deporter-in-chief” due of the record number of people removed on his watch.
But even with that very mixed legacy, there was some small semblance of progress under Obama. Young immigrants like Mancha mobilized and forced the administration to act unilaterally when comprehensive immigration reform (which Obama promised and failed to deliver during his first term) became a non-starter in Congress. Through an executive order dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), Obama shielded some 800,000 young immigrants like Mancha from deportation and provided them permits to legally work. They call themselves “dreamers,” a throwback to the “DREAM Act” legislation that Congress wouldn’t pass.
It seems very likely those protections will end under Trump, who has vowed to kill DACA and, during one presidential debate, even hinted at mass deportation squads. In seven years, the Obama Administration deported some 2 million people. Trump vows to deport that many just within his first year in office. On election night, as he watched state after state turn red for Trump, Mancha remembered what the candidate had said about “dreamers” like himself: “They have to go.”
The anxiety among immigrant communities is widespread. RAICES executive director Jonathan Ryan, whose San Antonio nonprofit provides legal services to asylum-seeking women and children, said the waiting room at his office has been filled with people since Wednesday. “It’s not just undocumented people, but immigrants of every status,” he says. “It’s a reflex of fear.”
Some advocates had hoped the hulking system of mass deportation and immigrant detention that had already developed under the Obama Administration might start to scale back in the coming months and years. The for-profit prison corporations that grew fat off immigrant detention were finally being phased out of the federal prison system – a decision many hoped that federal immigration officials would soon make as well. The feds’ practice of detaining and rapidly deporting asylum-seeking women and children has come under intense and growing criticism from humanitarian, non-profit, and even internal government watchdog groups.
People like Cristina Parker with Grassroots Leadership, which advocates for immigrants detained in South Texas’ sprawling detention complex, are now frightened of what might happen when Trump seizes the reins of that system. “In my wildest dreams, president Obama would dismantle everything he’s built before he leaves office,” Parker says. “As bad as it was under him and as much as we fought him, handing the keys over to a fascist who has pledged to deport 2 million people in a year is unconscionable, irresponsible.” Like many immigration advocates, Parker says people have been calling her all week asking what they should do. “We don’t have an answer,” she says, “and that feels very scary. It’s been demoralizing and frightening.”
Carolina Canizales says undocumented immigrants like her can’t afford to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. “When I listened to the campaign, what I heard is that he wants to deport people like me,” says Canizales, a UTSA graduate student who was brought to San Antonio from Mexico when she was just a child. “I’m angry, I’m panicked, I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
The past several years haven’t been easy, but activists like Canizales did manage to force piecemeal reforms. With sustained pressure from advocates, two years ago the Obama Administration said it would shield millions more
immigrants from deportation. That policy, however, will now basically wither away in litigation
Canizales expects the next several years to be even more trying. “This calls for great resilience for our communities,” she says. “We’re ready to fight….basically it’s the fight of our lives. We’re going to be tested like never before.”
“I don’t see myself not living in San Antonio,” she says. “I grew up here. I have friends here. It’s beautiful to be a part of this country. I don’t want to leave that. So, yeah, whatever it takes.”