A couple of weeks ago I was working at home, my wife and kids milling about upstairs, when I looked up to discover that a stranger had let himself in my front door and was approaching me at the kitchen table.
“Is that your sign in the front yard?”
I live on a busy street and take full advantage of the prime location to render culture-on-the-go for daily commuters. I’ve built Easter Island out of snow. I’ve put a Santa Claus on the roof. The kids and I have painted characters from “Peanuts” on plywood for Halloween. And during a really dull campaign season, I once ordered up a two-sided yard sign made from parody posters for “The Campaign,” a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as the world’s dumbest congressional candidates. That one got me a lot of thumbs-ups from passing motorists. It was a simpler time. You could poke fun at the entire enterprise of electioneering.
I could never put that sign up today.
Like a lot of people, I now awake to a sort of permanent seasickness under Donald Trump. Is the dishonest, antisocial and self-aggrandizing cheerleader for cruelty really still president? This baseline state of mute horror has me stifling worries for my children, grieving for my country, embarrassed for the GOP and afraid of turning on the news.
Even the smallest flicker of Christian duty has to shudder at the persecution of undocumented Americans and the prison-camping of their children at the hands of our government — the abusive treatment of the least of these brothers and sisters among us, in the words of our savior. This is not a normal time. Treating it as such only enables more. So while it may reek of futility to passers-by and test the patience of my neighbors, I have begun to use my yard to disrupt the daily drive.
During the 2016 election I ordered up a two-sided placard with an unflattering photo of then-candidate Trump. In recognition of the president’s long trail of jilted creditors, drivers from one direction were shown “Hail To the Thief,” while those from the other side of town saw “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” (I guess we now know). Following the election, I had a sign printed from a familiar photo of Trump in which the president demonstrated to his fans what he really thinks of their intelligence, by literally hugging the American flag. At least you can’t say he never warned them. That one came with a buyer-beware caption, one reading: This is a scoundrel. Do not obey him. Do not be like him.
Young children walk down my block. I believed it was possible they may not have been told this is not a normal time.
An assortment of other signs have been displayed in the long, sad months since then, rising whenever the president’s irrepressible racism erupts into the news, and moving into my garage when I begin to feel sorry for my commuters and tired of being “that guy.”
After the shame of family separations, I dealt with my spike in anxiety by custom-ordering a sign denoting the unforgivable deed in three short words, but it turned out that my online sign maker balked at putting onto foam core the fact that Trump steals babies. I have been sworn at by drivers and been greeted quietly by strangers expressing gratitude.
But until I put up a sign that said “Abolish ICE,” no one had ever let themselves into my house.
Abolish ICE — what is so very triggering about that nominal and pragmatic suggestion? According to the conventional wisdom, Abolish ICE is not simply a cause with no future; it is the policy equivalent of political suicide.
Just as a preliminary thought, it seems striking that this amnesia has spread across the landscape unchecked. After all, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is younger than the solo career of Justin Timberlake. And yet we are asked to believe it is indispensable. Have we have forgotten how recently the nation got by without a federal strike force that sows terror with impunity?
If abolishing ICE is heresy, someone needs to tell the dairy farmers, pork and poultry producers who comprise the economic lifeblood of the rural Midwest that their business model is dunzo. As an Esquire story recently made clear, the family of none other than Trump toady-in-chief Rep. Devin Nunes of California operates a dairy farm in a sea of undocumented labor just south of Worthington, Minn., in the highly compartmentalized, immigrant-appreciative, north-Iowa Trump-supporting community of Selby. In nearby Sleepy Eye, Minn., the sprawling Minnesota hog producer that is Christensen Farms has also utilized undocumented workers. We know that because last month ICE drove away with four busloads of them, causing the firm’s GOP-donating CEO to express shock, shock at the news.
That the rural economy in southern Minnesota has an awkward interdependency with undocumented labor seemed not to occur to the thousands of farmers who crashed Rochester early this month to hear Trump and his sycophants bait the crowd over sanctuary cities and so-called illegal immigration. Then again, there’s hypocrisy and then there’s the farm vote. Perhaps because commodity crops require less labor than do hogs and chicken, it was easier for these participants in the agriculture economy to focus on other forms of denial, like how Trump’s latest tariffs stand to destroy the price of beans for a generation.
The argument for ICE in its current form would have merit if ICE were acting as envisioned upon its creation, as a lean agency for the interruption of foreigners here to carry out terrorism. But ICE is doing nothing of the sort. As the recent round of raids make clear, ICE is barely even deporting dangerous criminals.
Having run out of terrorists and violent criminals to send home, ICE is largely in the business of administrative arrests — the abduction and “removal” of undocumented persons who’ve had run-ins with the law in the distant past or have otherwise overstayed. They’re targeting Americans who’ve lived here for decades without legal trouble — in other words, rounding up those they come across by accident, chasing down people just trying to raise children and do the jobs that other Americans reject.
And to spare the commenters the trouble, we all know the stated rationale for ICE: Undocumented or “illegal” Americans are here in violation of immigration law. We are a nation of laws. A mechanism for the apprehension of lawbreakers is necessary. What, are you in favor of open borders?
Also, everyone else waited in line, why can’t they?
First, because it bears stating at the outset: There is no line. If you were born abroad and have no training or family in the states, you can’t become an American. Raised to think of America as the land of opportunity, most of us might be surprised to learn that. But even with skills and connections, being directed to the back of a yearslong line isn’t a solution. If anything, it’s the endorsement of a bureaucratic failure, something critics of big government would seem to oppose.
If staking out a position in favor of those who “came in the front door” buys immigration opponents a measure of cover, it requires our blindness to the timeless fact of movement by people intent on bettering their chances in life, and a willingness to create illegal people — not acts, but people — where none otherwise would have existed.
But in the fevered imagination of immigration harpies, all of these arguments fall by the wayside in the warm glow of “open borders,” a phrase that, when it comes to validating prejudice, is the gift that keeps giving. In the open-borders narrative, America is a land overrun by crime, soaring use of public assistance and widespread threats to personal safety and is in economic decline. How many more of them can we take, it complains, in a nation with some of the lowest-density settlement patterns in the free world. We just do not have the room.
The argument will not be deterred by the excellent price of dairy products, chicken and pork at the big-box store, nor the well-documented fact that undocumented immigrants tend to forgo handouts, commit less crime, serve a positive (if exploited) role in the economy and, yes, even pay taxes.
But mostly, the eagerness to malign an open-borders tomorrow ignores the fact that so-called open borders were the conditions by which the ancestors for the vast majority of us arrived in this country.
As the immigration historian Mae Ngai writes in “Impossible Subjects, Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America”: “[U]ntil the late nineteenth century in the United States, immigration was encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Before then, Ellis Island inspected its waves of new European arrivals for sickness, but other than that, our borders were administrative details alone, just a line on a map denoting governance. No less of a border hawk than White House immigration henchman Stephen Miller is an American today because of open borders. As his uncle recently wrote in the Washington Post, Miller’s maternal grandfather arrived at Ellis Island as a Russian Jew fleeing pogroms in 1903. The very notion of an “illegal alien” would be confusing to the founding fathers; it dates to the immigration quotas of 1924.
Then, as today, immigration panic was on the rise. Then, as today, being tough on immigration was bigotry under the cover of polite argument. All that differed between then and now was the home country of the targeted persons. Instead of Guatemalans and Hondurans fleeing suffering, the cowardice of early-century American nativism would set its sights upon an exodus of Italian Catholics and Polish Jews fleeing poverty and persecution.
So unseemly was the rise of these quotas that they took 20 years to get through Congress, with key provisions later rolled back amid the suffering of the Great Depression. “IIlegal entry in itself is not a criterion on character,” as then-INS chief Daniel MacCormack said upon suspending deportations of settled persons — the very persons ICE is now busily rounding up in our neighborhoods and small towns.
In a remark that would get a person pegged as radical in today’s political calculus, this Depression-era administrator even praised “the mother who braces the hardship and danger frequently involved in an illegal entry for the purpose of rejoining her children.” In a separate rebuke to notions about immigration we now take for granted, Harry Truman criticized the official preference for skilled workers, calling it “flagrantly” discriminatory.
And these were just the arguments over immigration policy as it affected white Europeans.
“The national origins quota system proceeded from the conviction that the American nation was, and should remain, a white nation descended from Europe,” as Ngai writes, “an instrument of mass racial engineering.” The 1920s may have given us the parameters of today’s immigration policy, but they were no period for a policy to last the passage of time. The period also gave us eugenics, the second coming of the Klan, and country-of-origin tables that included 53 nations and five races, effectively designating people of color as without an admissible nation.
These are the founding fathers of our assumptions about immigration, racism that lives on in the new nativism. “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” as Laura Ingraham recently remarked on Fox News. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like … this is related to both illegal and legal immigration”
The facts about what ICE is now doing in our name are only trickling out. Recently, it was the story of a husband and decadeslong resident of Miami called and informed that someone had found his wallet, only to be arrested by ICE when he got there. That rivaled the abduction by ICE of a California man, the one taken away while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. There has been the targeting of illegal immigrant activists for deportation. As well as the recent deportation with the help of ICE of a dying man who has lived in my town for 15 years.
Things just start getting more Talibany around here — today for Hondurans, tomorrow for you and me. One day, language informing the undocumented of their resources disappears from federal websites. The next, immigration advocates post an animated warning that reads like science fiction: You have a right to ask ICE agents for an ID. They may not give you these documents. ICE usually won’t have a warrant, but they may lie and say they do. ICE may force themselves inside, even if they do not have the right. Even if you do everything right, they may still enter.
This used to be the kind of instruction given to visitors to countries ruled by goons. Now it’s for our neighbors in the farm country, in six languages, courtesy of the ACLU and others. And if you saw the clip last summer of an ICE abduction at the Ramsey County courthouse, it’s obvious ICE senses it is open season on brown people. The video depicts what can only be described as two bouncers moonlighting for the police state as they grab a Hispanic man in the hallway of a public building, pull him into an elevator and tell everyone to get lost. After refusing all calls to produce a warrant, an especially bored-looking agent shoves a woman who gets too close. “The next person who touches me,” he moans, “is getting charged with the assault of a federal officer.”
But was he? He was wearing the top to a track suit. This is what we are asked to accept in the name of “rounding up the lawbreakers.”
Which is how my intruder — a lucid, white retiree exuding nativist privilege — described ICE to me before I led him out the door and, yes, called the police.
“I’m here in your house without permission,” he said. “All ICE does is the same thing you want right now, which is to remove the people who do not belong there.”
He was invoking a popular burn making the rounds in the right-wing echo chamber, taking an AM radio talking point into his own hands as a way to own the libs. He thought he was teaching me a lesson. He was quite certain, in fact, that in acting with impunity, intimidating a neighbor for exercising free speech and disturbing the peace of a family in its own home, he was in no way doing an impersonation of ICE.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.