Gearing up for immigrant rights in a Trump administration
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Immigration has played a central role for both Republicans and Democrats in this election cycle, with consistent calls by Trump and his supporters for a border wall, religious tests, and a plan to deport even those individuals granted reprieve under President Obama.

To be sure, the Trump campaign has promised mass deportations, a further border crackdown, and a reversal of existing rights and programs that benefit undocumented immigrants. He has inspired and emboldened racist rhetoric and actions that terrorize communities of color and place the lives of immigrants in danger.


The power of the Trump campaign has rested to a large extent on islamophobia and stereotypes about the criminality and cultural inferiority of Mexican immigrants in particular. 

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE is now president-elect of the United States, and the stakes for undocumented immigrants could not be higher.

Let us not forget, however, that deportation and the targeting of immigrant communities has continued unabated throughout the Obama presidency fueled by a public narrative that rests on stereotypes of immigrant criminality.

Despite revised deportation priorities, under current Democratic programs, workers, family members, and even veterans and grandmothers, remain the primary target. Those “criminal aliens” subject to deportation are summarily categorized as such through racialized policing practices and a criminal justice system that is dysfunctional and suffering a crisis of legitimacy across the nation.

These workers produce goods we all buy for prices cheaper than they are worth, on the backs of their undervalued labor (making every one of us complicit as well). Undocumented workers and their families are also more likely to live in poverty and experience workplace abuse.

These same workers are subjected to police officers with free reign to turn a traffic violation into a deportation proceeding, and where even university professors like myself can be stopped on routine trips back across the border and lectured about the wisdom of “associating with illegals.”

This is the status quo — pre-Trump, and likely only to get worse in the four years ahead. 

Therefore, as we go all-in to avert a future where xenophobia rules and challenges to constitutional protections are handed down directly from the White House, what can we learn from past immigrant struggles?

First, the continued national battle for immigrant rights will be waged in vastly different arenas across the country. There are places like California, where drivers’ licenses are once again available to all residents regardless of status, where undocumented workers enjoy explicit protections against retaliation, and where public higher education is one of the most accessible in the country for undocumented students. 

The reality for these undocumented immigrants stands in stark contrast to those in places like Georgia where undocumented students are banned from matriculating in top state universities, and places like upstate New York where workers are nearly hostage to the abusive conditions of many of the dairies and farms where they work, surrounded by a police force that operates with impunity to arrest and deport them. These local differences will continue to matter despite a hardened posture inside the belt.

Second, history reminds us that someone is always left out of struggles for liberation. The now sidelined Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program would have benefitted only less than half of undocumented immigrants. Piecemeal temporary protected status for immigrants from only certain countries relies on often arbitrary determinations of worth and political allegiances, which are nonetheless crucial for those who benefit.

Well-meaning inclusive state and local policies targeting undocumented immigrants can also fall short, such as county health insurance plans made available only to undocumented children. So, and undocumented students have repeatedly demanded, a victory for some still necessitates demands for a victory for all.

Lastly, allies and foes change. Build immigrant power, not simply strategic alliances from the top. We are living in the middle of a remarkable revitalization of immigrant mobilization, just as hate and vitriol for immigrants comes into plain view. 

In response to the high-stakes election, we saw creative Get Out the Vote campaigns emerging, mobilizations at the conventions, and continued shows of solidarity at the border. However, a Republican (Reagan) was responsible for this country’s last major amnesty. A Democrat (Obama) has deported the most immigrants in our country’s history.

Unions (including at one time iconic leaders such as Cesar Chavez) once touted immigrant workers as competition, but are today amongst the staunched supporters of the movement. We should all prepare to resist Trump’s upcoming plans to further militarize the border and target immigrant communities. However, we should build lasting opportunities for change as well. Because in four years, when another Democrat stands to challenge Trump, we will need to hold them accountable as well.

In all moments of change, and responses to repression, immigrants and the organizations that represented them, pushed for change, and were responsible for implementing it. Today the stakes are higher than ever — for my students, for my friends, for my family. Let’s support their efforts, starting tomorrow, for the next four years, and beyond.

Gleeson is an associate professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (Department of Labor Relations, Law & History) at Cornell University, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.


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