If the incoming Trump administration makes good on its campaign promises about mass deportations, California will have a giant target on its back.
The state – the fifth largest economy in the world – is home to close to 3 million undocumented immigrants, almost a quarter of the national total. That, in turn, suggests a looming showdown between the Trump administration and local political leaders, almost all of whom see immigrants as a vital part of Californian life and the state’s powerhouse economy, and are determined to do whatever they can to protect them.
In the days since Donald Trump’s stunning electoral upset, the state’s predominantly Democratic political leadership has raced to assure frightened immigrants that they won’t simply roll over to the demands of the new administration or Immigration and Customs Enforcement – whether the target is to deport all 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants, as Trump said during the campaign, or just two or three million, as he suggested in a television interview last Sunday.
“We want to support [Trump], but we also have to hold him accountable,” Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti told an emergency meeting of immigration advocates called in response to the election. “If, on his first day as president, we see something that is hostile to our people, hostile to our city, bad for our economy, bad for our security, we will speak up, speak out, act up and act out on that.”
Los Angeles is one of a growing number of cities – along with San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York – that have publicly declared their intention to keep local police away from immigration enforcement, even if the Trump administration follows through on its threat to cut federal funding in retaliation.
In Los Angeles, the practice dates back to 1979 and an ultra-conservative police chief who believed it was more important to encourage immigrants to talk to the police for the sake of public safety than to question their legal status. “I don’t intend on doing anything different,” LAPD’s chief, Charlie Beck, told reporters this week. “We are not going to work in conjunction with Homeland Security on deportation efforts. That is not our job, nor will I make it our job.”
Mayor Garcetti has promised to help immigrants in other ways, too – including directing his legal staff to keep filing legal briefs in defense of the immigrant community, and encouraging eligible candidates to apply for citizenship through an education program run through Los Angeles’ public libraries.
Many California cities have created so-called safe zones in their schools that prevent federal immigration officials from entering except under extraordinary circumstances. State legislators, meanwhile, plan on re-examining confidentiality rules to make it as difficult as possible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to gain access to driver’s license records, school and medical records.
Trump and his advisers – who include some of the country’s most outspoken anti-immigrant voices including Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, and his newly appointed White House strategist Steve Bannon – say they want to focus their deportation efforts on criminals. But there is scant evidence that undocumented immigrants with criminal records come anywhere close to the 2 million mark, especially since Barack Obama has already deported around 2.5 million of them over the past eight years.
“The number is closer to 800,000,” Hincapié of the National Immigration Legal Center said, adding. “If they are serious about deporting 2-3 million to show they are moving on this agenda, they will end up detaining many more people.”
One place the Trump administration is likely to start its deportation efforts is with DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals), a program Obama championed in 2014 that has enabled more than 700,000 young people to claim temporary legal status. Since DACA was created by executive order, it can be canceled the same way, leaving enrollees vulnerable because their personal details are on file with their applications.
Many advocacy groups are encouraging those who received an initial two-year permit under DACA to reapply so they have some legal documentation when the new administration takes office. But they are discouraging new applicants because they will not be approved before inauguration day.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument against the coming anti-immigrant tide, appealing to Republicans as well as Democrats, is economic. One recent study suggested undocumented immigrants contribute an annual $130bn to California’s gross domestic product. For every farmworker, gardener, nanny, garment worker, or restaurant dishwasher there are multiplier effects that provide jobs to many non-immigrants too – truckers, landscape architects, fashion designers and so on.
Putting those workers on a path to legal status is not only cheaper than deporting them, economists say, but is also a form of economic stimulus because their incomes will go up at least 15% over the following three years, according to immigration expert Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California.
People covered by DACA are likely to be even more productive, because many of them have university degrees and legal status allows them to jump straight from dishwasher to fully-fledged professional. “Some studies say their incomes go up 50-60%” Pastor said. ““If you remove them, you are removing their entire productivity… The thing that is easiest for Trump to do, to reverse DACA, has the most significant economic costs.”
Some activists remain optimistic that the economic argument will restrain Trump, especially given the importance of the Californian economy to the United States as a whole. Others, though, believe the hostility to immigrants is more obstinately ideological and is designed, primarily, to weaken the political coalition that put Obama in the White House for eight years.
“When I look at Kobach and Bannon, I have to say, I do not expect them to come up with a pass to citizenship at all,” Hincapié said. “They might agree to legal status for some people, but never citizenship because those people would become voters. And they are afraid of those people becoming voters.”