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“Trump Is Resurrecting the Scare Tactics”: Prof. Kelly Lytle Hernández on Trump’s Deportation Plans

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On Tuesday night, President Trump suggested the United States should transition to a merit-based immigration system. He also vowed to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico and to crack down on undocumented immigrants in the name of national security. We speak with historian Kelly Lytle Hernández of UCLA.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: During his speech on Tuesday night, President Trump suggested the United States should transition to a merit-based immigration system.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The current outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers. Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system. It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon. According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs American taxpayers many billions of dollars a year. Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits. It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class. And they will do it quickly. And they will be very, very happy indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump before that joint session of Congress last night. Kelly Lytle Hernández is with us, associate professor at the UCLA Department of History, author of Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Your response to his address, and specifically what he said about immigration, Professor?

KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ: Well, in terms of a merit-based immigration system, it really highlights the fact that I don’t think he really understands the immigration system we currently have in place. It largely is a skill-based system and a family reunification system, skill-based in the sense that we’re filling needs in the labor market here. So, once again, I’m concerned that we have a president who is issuing policy or making statements without fully understanding the system in which we’re working.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play another clip of President Trump last night, where he reiterated his plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the southern border.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: At the same time, my administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security. By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars and make our communities safer for everyone. We want all Americans to succeed, but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders. For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kelly Lytle Hernández, talk about this. This is your focus, your specialty.

KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ: Absolutely. Well, he has promised us a great, great, beautiful wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and he’s promised us that the Mexican government is going to pay for it. Now, historically speaking, this is one of the most interesting parts of the Trump administration, that for the last hundred years, more or less, Mexico and the United States have worked collaboratively on controlling migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. But it’s on this point that the Mexican government has really dug in its heels and said, “We will not assist in building this wall. We will not assist in the mass deportations plan from the United States to Mexico.” In fact, the Mexican government is providing legal services for Mexican residents living within the United States, should they be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol or by ICE.

Now, what’s really interesting about this is, the last time I am aware of the Mexican government really opposing cooperating with the United States on immigration control along the border goes—is back in the 19th century, and that had to do with slavery. During the times of slavery in the United States, U.S. slaveholders would put pressure on the Mexican government to return slaves who ran away and found freedom and liberty in Mexico. And the Mexican government refused to do so. So, we have gone more than a hundred years since we’ve had this kind of opposition from the Mexican government on this issue of collaborating over migration control.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your sense of how many people have been rounded up since President Trump came into office, since the ban, which has been stopped by the courts but couldn’t—because he couldn’t enforce the—what he’s even called the Muslim ban, this crackdown on immigrants in this country, particularly Latino immigrants, and sending them over the border?

KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ: Well, the crackdown hasn’t come yet. So far, we have a lot of rhetoric, and we have a lot of scare tactics. But Trump really doesn’t have the funding, he doesn’t have the cooperation at the local level, to really fulfill his promised crackdown. Now, this is really interesting because he did promise us a resurrection of Operation Wetback of 1954, which is usually cited as the largest mass deportation campaign in U.S. history. But the fact is that not that many deportations happened during 1954—at maximum, about 300,000, not the 1 million that are usually cited. And what really did happen during that summer was a scare campaign and that the U.S. Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service led a campaign, issued statements promising to round up, detain in large numbers and deport up to a million Mexican immigrants. And it was that campaign that frightened many people into self-deporting. I think that this is really the stage that we’re seeing Trump resurrect right now, is the scare tactics. Whether or not he actually gets the funding from Congress to turn this into a real immigration law enforcement campaign, that remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess in the first week after the ban was rejected, something like, what, 700 people were rounded up in raids from Los Angeles to Arizona to other places.

KELLY LYTLE HERNÁNDEZ: Absolutely. I’m not saying that the raids are not happening. I’m saying they’re not happening at the scale of mass deportation that would lead us to 5, 6, 7 million deportations.

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