Earlier this week, the Trump administration started hinting that the president’s “temporary” ban on immigration, rushed into effect in late April as a part of the pandemic response, was about to be extended indefinitely.
With the country entirely preoccupied by the public health and economic catastrophes, and with protest all but impossible given the dangers of congregating in large crowds, Trump’s team has, apparently, decided to seize the moment and lock down the country in a way that even the most restrictive, nativist policies of the 1920s and the quota era in immigration never did.
The rationale will apparently be a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declaration that immigration poses a public health risk during the pandemic — despite the fact that fully one third of the world’s cases now are within the U.S.; that an immigrant is far more likely to contract COVID-19 once he or she arrives in the country than to bring the disease into the country themselves. And once such a declaration is made, Trump will, if the reports are correct, then ban all immigration until such time as the CDC head declares the public health crisis over — a formula that will, in effect, give Trump unlimited power to shut the U.S. off from the rest of the world for so long as he remains in the White House.
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It is an extraordinary power grab, the true emergence of rule by diktat rather than by legislation. In one fell swoop, while our attention is elsewhere, this action threatens to turn the U.S. into a closed society that not only shuns economic immigrants, that not only blocks family unification, but that also no longer pays even lip service to the notions of asylum and of refugee resettlement — ideas that are utterly central to the rules-based international system.
Now, it’s not as if we haven’t had fair warning that such vile policies were in the offing. After all, from his first day in office, from that ghastly “American carnage” inauguration speech that ushered in the Trump era in all its shattering, coarse brutalism, in all its racism and institutionalized cruelty, Trump has been steadily ratcheting up the anti-immigrant rhetoric. When the history books are written, Trump’s years in office will be seen as a Black Book of anti-immigrant atrocities, from the Muslim travel ban to family separation, from the imprisoning of children to the parading of unaccompanied toddlers before immigration judges, from the wanton assault on Temporary Protected Status and on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to the decision to start deporting asylum seekers back to supposedly safe third countries — such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — that have some of the highest murder rates in the world.
And that was all pre-pandemic. In the last few months, with the COVID-19 crisis spiraling out of control, Trump’s team seems to have hit on a strategy of relentless bashing-the-foreigner in lieu of a coherent and effective strategy to tame the pandemic stateside and to stanch the economic bleed that has come about from shelter-in-place measures intended to slow the disease’s spread.
Back in late January, when the world was hoping against hope that the coronavirus outbreak could be contained within China, the administration barred flights from China, and prohibited entry into the country of most Chinese nationals as well as others who had recently transited through China. In March, in a series of seemingly improvised responses as it became clear the virus was going global, the lockout and lockdown was ratcheted up. First, flights from Europe were banned. After that, the land borders with both Mexico and Canada were sealed. And finally, on April 21, at the urging of Stephen Miller, Trump’s Svengali of xenophobia, a “temporary” 60-day ban on all immigration was announced.
In reality the “total” ban was actually far less restrictive – allowing the spouses of green card holders to enter, as well as those with visas for skilled work and temporary employment in essential services such as agriculture. And, as a temporary measure, it was, in fact, largely symbolic, the throwing of red meat to Trump’s xenophobic base: With global air travel largely grounded, with consulates and embassies shuttered, and with most countries having locking down their own borders, it was highly unlikely there was going to be a rush of new immigration this spring.
Yet, even in its watered-down form, it remained an extraordinary moment: The U.S., at presidential behest, was closing itself off from the rest of the world.
Ostensibly, the rationale for this completely unprecedented move was a public health one. But Trump immediately telegraphed the real reason, tweeting out that he didn’t want immigrants competing with Americans for jobs – and implicitly attempting to shift the blame for the economic implosion from his administration’s startling mishandling of the crisis onto the backs of immigrants, of poor people, of people of color.
This was, clearly, xenophobic twaddle. It made no economic sense and no public health sense. But it did telegraph to Trump’s supporters that he was ramping up his nationalism to heights previously only dreamt of by small internet cadres of “accelerationists,” fascist groupings that have been strategizing online about using the crisis to push their nationalist, anti-democratic vision, and who believe the pandemic presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mold the world to their white supremacist ideology.
Under cover of the public health emergency, at Trump’s orders, the Border Patrol began summarily throwing back into Mexico thousands of people, including at least 600 children in April, who had sought asylum after being apprehended north of the border without papers. The impact has been entirely catastrophic: Since the lockdown, only two people – yes, you read that correctly – have been granted refuge after crossing the southern border and claiming asylum. Human rights groups report that many hundreds of those returned to Mexico and to Central America have suffered everything from rape and kidnapping to murder.
Meanwhile, at the state level, the rule of law is under perhaps the gravest threat from white nationalists and militia groups that it has faced since the Civil War. For weeks now, Trump has been tweeting about “liberating” states like Michigan and Pennsylvania – states with Democratic governors but with GOP control of at least one of the legislative chambers. Now, armed militias are taking him at his word.
In Michigan, for two weeks in a row, heavily armed militias have entered the Capitol building, and the governor is reportedly receiving countless death threats. On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled legislature chose to adjourn so as not to antagonize the heavily armed thugs who had threatened to take over their chamber.
Let’s not mince words here: Trump has been urging paramilitary groupings to “liberate” states from their duly elected leadership. And now those groupings are taking to the streets. That’s how armed, fascist, putsches start. Where the Nazis had their Munich Beer Hall putsch, Trump apparently wants a Michigan Bowling Alley putsch. And, since Trump has all the power of the presidency at his disposal, when he eggs on armed insurrection against elected officials, he is quite literally flirting with civil war — or, at the very least, regional civil chaos.
From the southern border to Lansing, Michigan, at the urging of the president of the republic, the rule of law is breaking down at a startling pace. We ignore this at our peril. No matter how preoccupied we are with lost jobs and a deadly virus, we cannot afford to ignore what is happening. Trump is using the fog of the pandemic to replace constitutional governance with one-man rule; to replace the rule of law by the rule of brute force. His accelerationist minions believe this is their moment, that they can use the crisis to permanently shut out poor and non-white immigrants, and that, with the presidential seal of approval, they can use force of arms to get their political way in states led by governors with whom they disagree.
There is no turning back from this dark road. The president is siding with armed insurrectionists in their opposition to public health regulations and to Democratic governors. He is siding with white supremacists in their efforts to seal U.S. borders and wither the immigration system. It is up to us to oppose them with every fiber of our being. If we do not, we shall end up complicit in the wanton wrecking of democracy.