Fighting for Immigrant Rights in the Time of Trump

By Chris Zepeda-Millán

In 2015 Donald Trump sent shockwaves throughout the Latino and immigrant community when he launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Since entering the Oval Office, Trump has continued his attacks by issuing multiple anti-immigrant executive actions, promising to build a wall on our southern border, pardoning a sheriff criminally convicted of racially profiling Latinos, ramped up immigrant detention, attempted to end DACA and, most recently, sought to ban thousands of Central Americans from legally applying for asylum. Accordingly, Donald Trump is arguably the most anti-Latino U.S. president in contemporary American history. Given that his assaults against Latino immigrants—and by extension the larger Latino community—show no signs of abating, in this blog post I reflect upon research I recently co-authored (with Sophia Wallace of the University of Washington) on how the U.S. immigrant rights movement initially responded to the Trump Administration.

In our chapter in Tarrow and Mayer’s edited volume The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement, my co-author and I sought out to take the pulse of the movement during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Conducting semi-structured elite interviews with leaders of several of the country’s most prominent national immigrant rights organizations, we found that activists had prepared to push for a host of progressive legislative changes and anticipated making major gains under a Hilary Clinton presidency. Unfortunately, whereas under the Obama Administration advocates were able to make some policy gains (e.g., DACA) through their direct actions, and had their concerns about others heard, subsequent to the 2016 election they faced a situation in which the sitting U.S. president would have some of the country’s most rabid nativists advising him on how to turn his anti-immigrant beliefs into legislative actions.

As mentioned above, upon taking office, Trump launched a host of assaults against Latino immigrants. Immigrant rights organizers faced an environment where they were not only being continuously attacked by the highest office in the land, but unlike under the previous administration, the new president would not be influenced by their activism; in fact, in many respects, the president’s hostility towards them helps him gain political points with his xenophobic base. Thus, since Trump won the White House, the federal political opportunity structure has clearly closed for supporters of immigrant rights.

Under this type of hostile context, social movement scholars have argued that movements often enter a state of abeyance where instead of focusing on public actions, activists concentrate on cultivating and sustaining movement networks and collective identities. To some degree, this has occurred with regard to the immigrant rights movement. For instance, our interviewees said that many organizers realized the need to spend more time building bases outside of their traditional strongholds (e.g., L.A., Chicago, and New York), as well as the importance of influencing future local, statewide, and national elections. Nonetheless, during the dawn of the Trump presidency, many immigrant rights advocates continued to overtly resist and condemn the administration’s actions and seem to have shifted downward the scale of their activism. Indeed, one of our most interesting findings was that despite the fact that passing any progressive national immigration policy reform is a pipe dream under the current president and Congress, in some liberal locations Democratic lawmakers have become emboldened by Trump’s actions, and have become adamant about pushing for laws that support and protect the foreign-born.

For instance, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, has taken the lead in suing to stop the president from building his controversial border wall with Mexico and over his plan to end the popular DACA program. Furthermore, Golden State legislators’ passed a “sanctuary state” bill to protect immigrants without legal residency. According to the Los Angeles Times, this law was “part of a broader push by Democrats” in the state “to counter expanded deportation orders under the Trump administration.” As one of our interviewees recalled, “in the shock and awe moment of Trump winning and facing the reality of it,” some state legislators expressed the desire to “maximize every possible thing we could do under California law to protect immigrants.” Hence, at least in some liberal locations, it seems that elected officials—particularly Latino ones—are seeing the current moment as one in which it may be politically expedient to work with movement activists on passing progressive immigration policies at the local and state levels.

Regrettably, California is more the exception than the rule, and with control of the federal government, Trump still yields a significant amount of power, much of which the immigrant rights movement lacks the institutional strength to fend off. For example, the movement is currently facing one of the most serious crises in its history, as thousands of Central American refugees are fleeing severe violence and arriving at our southern border. These migrants—including women, children, and elderly—are currently sleeping on the dangerous streets of Tijuana, hoping to survive what will in all likelihood be several months of waiting outdoors in the middle of winter for an opportunity to present their cases. However, instead of increasing the number of immigration officials at the border to help process them, the president has demonized the asylum seekers in the media and recently sent thousands of U.S. military soldiers to intimidate them. In addition, Trump also recently condoned Border Patrol agents’ shooting of teargas at the migrants in order to prevent them from reaching a port of entry and legally applying for asylum.

While activists have gathered donations and created pop-up legal clinics to help these refugees with their cases, they will also likely lobby the incoming Democratic-led Congress to use the power of the purse to rein in the president’s nativist actions. This, however, will be easier said than done given that many of the “blue wave” Democrats who unseated Republicans in the recent midterm elections won in relatively moderate or conservative districts. Consequently, many of these newly elected officials might be hesitant to support activists’ calls to help asylum seekers, given how controversial immigration issues are in the U.S. and the fact that the 2020 presidential election is just around the corner. Despite these serious challenges, all signs indicate that the asylum seekers and the migrant rights activists supporting them are not shying away from this uphill battle, they have not choice but to face it head on.

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