A record-breaking 2.5 million deportations. Indefinite detention of asylum-seeking mothers and their children in border camps. Double the number of immigrants held in private prisons and county jails during deportation proceedings, to a record 400,000 annually. Expanding the annual federal budget for immigration police to $20 billion.

Welcome to President Trump's America. Except, all of this happened under the Obama administration.

Trump made it to the White House in part on a pledge to deport millions of "criminal aliens". This promise requires a vast expansion of the world's largest deportation and detention regime, which has exploded over the past two decades.

In 1996, President Clinton enacted dramatic changes to immigration law, exposing millions of longtime residents to detention and deportation. Those laws remodelled immigration enforcement to mirror American criminal law's most notorious norms and practices: mass incarceration, racially discriminatory policing, and unforgiving sentencing.

The law now permits deportation of longtime lawful permanent residents for offences that include shoplifting, drug possession, or failing to pay a bus fare. It also mandates indefinite detention during deportation proceedings for recently arrived asylum seekers and many immigrants convicted of an offence. This has resulted in prolonged imprisonment – often years – without the possibility of release on bond.

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos Deportation Phoenix Arizona
Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 36, as she is held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation in Phoenix, Arizona, on 8 February 2017Facebook/Puente Human Rights Movement

Since then, every president has expanded the mass deportation regime. President Bush militarised immigration control by overseeing the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, linking day labourers and longtime green card holders to anti-terrorism and national security. Obama increased immigration policing until it comprised half of the federal law enforcement budget and prosecution of border crossing without authorisation until it represented half of the federal criminal docket.

Trump wants to beat these records. Within days of entering office, he ordered the hiring of 15,000 more immigration police, immediate contracting with private prison companies for additional detention centres, and the expansion of the wall along the US border with Mexico.

The Trump administration's message on immigrants has faced steep criticism for its crude racism. In broad strokes, Trump depicted Mexicans as "criminals" and "rapists".

While Obama may not have used openly racist and inflammatory stereotypes to legitimise his immigration policies, he too embraced a criminalising ideology. The cornerstone of Obama's narrative was the "felons, not families" frame. Though such rhetoric was more polished than "bad hombres", it still concealed the human rights abuses and incredible suffering of thousands of families permanently separated under his command. But the use of criminalising language against immigrants is not new. It's a mainstay of the American political tradition, employed by politicians of many parties to justify anti-immigrant legislation and practices since the founding of this country.

And for all their commonalities, there are some key differences between Obama and Trump. For Trump to accomplish in four years what Obama did in eight, he will need to make Americans foot an even larger bill. Resourcing both "the wall" and the growth of the massive detention and deportation machine will mean forcing the government to move billions in the budget, depriving communities of urgently needed resources.

Also, Trump's use of the term "criminal" is even broader. Under his executive orders, many people who were not targeted before are now at risk. Even immigrants who have never even been arrested fall under this administration's definition of "criminal". That means rounding up everyone from the undocumented mother who got a traffic ticket to the lawfully residing father who has long since moved passed his youthful offence and rebuilt his life – a burden sure to fall disproportionately on Blacks, Latinos, and people profiled to be Muslim.

The use of criminalising language against immigrants is not new. It's a mainstay of the American political tradition, employed by politicians to justify anti-immigrant legislation since the founding of this country

For the mechanics of mass deportation to work, Trump needs to further entangle the policing, criminal, legal, and immigration systems by further deploying the terms "criminal", "public safety risks" and "threats to national security" against people of colour. This compounds the harms of these systems to those who are already disproportionately hurt, including LGBTQ people, the working class, and those from the Global South.

He'll need to further enlist local police to arrest more immigrants for quality-of-life and other otherwise ticketable violations (so-called "broken windows" practices that rely on racial and other profiling); stage blitzkrieg raids on industrial plants, farms, and service industries that employ immigrants; and create millions of new "criminal immigrants" by increasing prosecutions of undocumented entry into the country, swelling private federal prisons to their bursting point.

According to reports, Guadalupe García de Rayos is reportedly the first in Arizona to be set for deportation after she went for a routine immigration check at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. She was convicted of using a false social security number to work eight years ago, but has been in the US for 21 years.

At the end of the day, the last key difference is us. Unlike Obama, Trump's brash disposition and extreme agenda have garnered widespread public opposition. Trump is bringing together groups of people who might have never before spoken to each other.

Against an increasingly adversarial opponent, we are shoring up an opposing vision for America, one that's rooted firmly in more rights, more justice, and more dignity for all.


Anthony Enriquez is Equal Justice Works Emerson Fellow at Immigrant Defense Project

Alisa Wellek is Executive Director at Immigrant Defense Project