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How Trump Uses Fear To Govern

Fear has filled the vacuum the administration left behind by governing by rumor and enforcing laws according to whim

As the Trump administration has discovered, one of America’s most sturdy bulwarks against despotism is the status quo. The Founders made changing and enacting laws purposefully difficult and time-consuming. Somewhat less purposefully, sheer institutional inertia makes turning the ship of state a lengthy and necessarily cooperative effort. Trump can fire off ill-considered tweets, but you can’t change decades of foreign policy in 140 characters or fewer. Of course, Trump is also discovering that inaction has a certain power unto itself. His presidency is becoming defined by a disinclination to act or speak when it would matter the most.

Now, Trump’s personal lassitude presents a sort of peril on its own. That he can’t be bothered to learn the basics of American history or foreign policy is, at the moment, mostly just embarrassing. (Someday, though, Kim Jong Un may take offense at Trump’s inability to distinguish the young leader from his dad.) And Trump’s insistence on leading the life of a wealthy retiree while serving as president isn’t just costly — the Mar-a-Lago open-air situation room is a national security risk.

Beyond Trump’s own fecklessness or aversion to hard work, though, there's also the strategic silence of his agencies. Especially when it comes to immigration enforcement, the true menace of the Trump administration stems from disengagement. Fear has filled the vacuum left behind when it started governing by rumor and enforcing laws according to whim.

In February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out a series of high-profile raids that led to 680 arrests; the media touted them as a sign of Trump’s new hard line. But the raw numbers missed the point: On average, the Obama administration arrested twice as many undocumented immigrants each week. What made these recent raids different — and psychologically effective — was whom they targeted and how the arrests went down. Obama-era deportations did not, in general, come in the form of raids that arrested people in their places of work or at their homes. The inaugural Trump raids, on the other hand, arrested people who didn’t realize they were targets. They extracted individuals directly from their communities. You probably heard the stories of the most gruesomely inhumane examples: the mother who was awaiting surgery; the woman filing a domestic violence complaint; the father taking his kids to school.

These stories went viral for a few days in the mainstream media, but in immigrant communities, they've left more lasting marks. There hasn’t been another large-scale ICE action since February; rumors of raids have altered the communities all on their own.

One New Mexico school district reported 2,000 absences in the wake of the February raid. An immigrant-supported retailer in one Oregon city says that his business is down 80 percent in recent weeks; another resident said the 60 percent Latino community has become a “ghost town.” In Los Angeles, sexual assault reports by Latinos are down 25 percent from where they were last year, and domestic violence reports by Latinos are down 10 percent. According to the former president of the Neighborhood Market Association, lack of customers at independent convenience stores in Southern California means that many store owners have made cuts by 20 to 30 percent. Philadelphia canceled its Cinco de Mayo parade. Families have called off birthday celebrations; raid fears have emptied churches' pews.

A Brooklyn hospital held a forum intended to soothe community fears of being arrested bedside, noting that the official ICE policy is to “avoid stopping, searching, or arresting” immigrants at hospitals or clinics. Indeed, ICE’s “sensitive locations” policy states that “enforcement actions” should “generally be avoided” at hospitals, schools, clinics, places of worship, protests, and “civil ceremonies.” That DHS officials insist this policy is still in place, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary, probably just gives the rumors of further raids more credence. After one activist group posted what turned out to be a false alarm about impending raids, a spokesman for the group noted that their decision to post the rumor was based on ICE acting without warning in February: “Had we been advised by ICE early on of where exactly they were conducting their operations, I don’t think that we would have had to do any type of guesswork.”

This week, USA Today confirmed that a DREAMer swept up in February's raids was in fact deported — even though Trump has spoken wistfully of “these incredible kids,” promising in January that “they shouldn’t be very worried,” and that he has “a big heart.” Hundreds of undocumented residents were deported, but you only need one example to suggest that the 750,000 people who were protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program aren't protected anymore. As the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center put it, “How does an immigrant family today know that this is not going to happen to them?”

Naysayers point out that Trump’s signature campaign promise — cracking down on illegal immigration — has remained mostly a promise. Congress balked at the cost of the wall, and the Department of Justice is still searching for judges to volunteer to help clear out the backlog of 500,000 immigration cases standing in the way of actually deporting large groups of “bad hombres.” A Homeland Security memo about fulfilling Trump’s executive order on deportation estimated they would need an additional $100 million beyond what the administration has requested from Congress to even get started.

But while Trump officials deal with the real-world obstacles to this particular white nationalist fantasy, immigrant communities have found themselves the latest victims of weaponized fake news. “People are unnecessarily incarcerating themselves," as one immigration lawyer put it. Agencies’ budgetary woes, after all, can’t blot out the message that Trump rode to victory on. Hiring new border patrols may be expensive, but allowing paranoia to fester is cheap. You don’t have to change immigration policy to change the lives of immigrants, it turns out. You just have to let fear change it for you.