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While the Trump administration is continuing many of the anti-immigrant policies of the Clinton and Obama administration, his efforts to criminalize all immigrants represents a new twist, says Prof. Aviva Chomsky

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

While President Donald Trump is declaring a national emergency in order to allocate more funds for his border wall project, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has been engaging in a complex sting operation in order to ensnare visiting foreign students into committing immigration crimes. That is, ICE created a fake university in Michigan called the University of Farmington, where it enrolled foreign students. It then said up to 600 students had enrolled merely in order to get student visas, and that they knew the university was fake. This led to the arrest of 161 of these students.

This is not the first time that ICE has employed such a sting operation. The practice, though, raises questions about the lengths to which ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are willing to go to criminalize immigrants to the United States. Joining me to explore this issue is Aviva Chomsky. Aviva is professor of history and coordinator of the Latin American Studies Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Thanks, Aviva, for joining us again.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: It’s a pleasure to be here.

GREG WILPERT: So before we turn to the issue of ICE practices, and under Trump more generally, let’s take a look at this particular case, where ICE created a fake university to entrap foreign students. What purpose do you think this practice serves, and why would ICE do such a thing?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: So, just to contextualize this a little bit, I do want to mention that this university, this sting operation, actually dates to 2015. That’s when it began. And as you mentioned, this is not the first time that the United States has done this. There was a similar operation, smaller scale, with a fake university in New Jersey that was found in 2012. So much as I am not a big fan of Donald Trump, I do think it’s important to place his immigration policies in the context that is this was not something new in the Trump administration. This is particular university and the idea of using our money, taxpayer money, to fund this agency that is spending who knows how much money to create these elaborate schemes to, as you say, entrap foreign students.

U.S. immigration law is incredibly complex. To create an entire university and to recruit students who have–most of them probably have no idea that they’re doing anything illegal when they apply to this university. The university claims to be approved by DHS. DHS actually hires recruiters to recruit these students. It takes their money. There’s no way that the students could even know that anything that they’re doing is illegal. They are following all the rules. These are the people who waited in line, who followed the rules. And because of the complexity of U.S. immigration law they’re being sort of channeled into committing a crime that they have no idea they are committing.

Obviously this isn’t the first time that the U.S. government has tried to do this. It’s as far as we know only the second time that they’ve tried to do it towards this group of students. That is, we’re talking about people who have university degrees. In this case they’re often [Indian]. Many of them are in the STEM fields. Many of them have already gotten a master’s degree in the United States. They have been eligible for work visas in the United States because through their programs of study and through extensions–again, it’s all really complicated.

But why would ICE do this? Because it’s an organization–an agency completely out of control, that, it’s–I mean, I say out of control, but actually this is what it was created and designed to do; to instill fear, to discriminate against people of color, against people who were not born in the United States, to create an us and them mentality. I mean, that’s really the whole Department of Homeland Security was invented to do. And to justify huge expenditures of money, just as Trump is trying to justify on the wall, by trying to create this popular sense that somehow immigrants are these really dangerous people, and we have to go after them.

GREG WILPERT: Now, as I mentioned earlier, Trump recently declared a national emergency in order to do an end run around Congress, in order to get funds for a border wall. Now, this push for a border wall is couched in xenophobic rhetoric, where he makes false claims about invasion of immigrants and their supposedly criminal activity. But as we know, DHS statistics themselves show that neither claim is true. But still, what have been the real life consequences of Trump’s immigration policies for the immigrant community?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: One has been heightened levels of fear in the immigrant community. People being forced underground. All the way back to the … I mean, discrimination against immigrants today is discrimination against people of color. And I think we have to see it in terms of a very long history in the United States of marginalizing and excluding people of color, sometimes through immigration laws, sometimes through other types of laws.

So immigrants have long been–immigrants of color, especially immigrants from Latin America–have long, through a combination of racism, legalized racism, racist laws, been relegated to the lower sectors of the economy. They’ve been forced to accept working conditions that they should not have–that nobody should have to accept. Certainly we see the real life consequences on the border, where tens of thousands of people are being illegally denied the right to apply for asylum in the United States. They are being forced into tent cities on the Mexican side of the border. We’ve seen since the Clinton administration increased death rates of people who are trying to cross the border, as they’ve been pushed into the desert through the beginnings of the building of this wall. And again, the wall did not begin with Donald Trump. A lot of the wall was already there. And a good part of it started under the Clinton administration. And with the building of this wall we started to see a spike in death rates of people who are trying to cross the border.

Now, as you pointed out, numbers of immigrants coming into the United States are actually declining. And they’re declining for a complex set of reasons, many of which have to do with changes in Mexico’s birth rate, Mexico’s economy. That is, structural factors that really have nothing at all to do withvU.S. policy. There’s also many structural factors that do have to do withvU.S. policy, such as the kinds of economic models we’ve imposed on Mexico and Central America, the kind of dependence on immigrant labor that we demand in our economy, the kind of cheap goods that we demand, whether produced by Mexican and Central American workers in the United States, or in their home countries.

So U.S. foreign policy, U.S. trade policy, U.S. economic policy all plays a much bigger role in migration patterns than do these sort of spectacles of the wall, which can serve to greatly increase human suffering, but have very little effect on migration patterns.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the last time we had you on, towards the beginning of the Trump administration, we compared Trump’s immigration policies to those of the Obama administration’s. And you also just now made also the comparison to the Clinton administration, saying that it actually began back then, and that there was a certain amount of continuity. Now, I’m wondering now, a good two years into the Trump administration, to what extent has it gotten worse? Or is it still on a par with the overall trend that started back with the Clinton administration?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: I’m going to have to argue both sides of that issue, because I think that there’s ways in which we see a lot of continuity and ways in which it’s gotten a lot worse. Certainly the criminalization of immigrants, the current atmosphere of criminalization of immigrants, I would trace back to the Clinton administration, and the passage of some major laws that emphasized this notion of the criminality of immigrants, and that create all kinds of new crimes that immigrants can be prosecuted and deported for; create whole new categories of deportable people through their criminalization. And President Obama, this narrative of criminalization, I think Obama definitely continued. Of course, there were a couple of other presidents between Clinton and Obama, but I’m emphasizing the Democrats here to show this sort of continuity.

And I also think that in in looking at President Obama’s policies, we really have to note that in the last two years of his presidency, there were some pretty fundamental–in some ways–fundamental shifts. That is, the first six years of the Obama administration really just saw an emphasis on deportation. Rising levels of deportation, criminalizing more of the people who were being deported, implementation of internal enforcement. But Obama also had this narrative of felons, not families. Now, this is a really false narrative, because it implies that felons do not have families. And we all know, if we know anything about the criminal justice system, and if we know anything about the intersections between the criminal justice system and the immigration system, that many people defined as felons have either entered that status through a plea bargain, through committing something that most of us would not consider to be a dangerous or violent crime. But the category of what consists of a felony for immigrants is so vast. So many of these people who are defined as felons, and in the presumption that felons don’t have families, that Obama continued this narrative that we are really after the bad guys.

But the other side of Obama’s last two years was, first of all, the creation of DACA in his second administration, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and again playing into this narrative, like these are the good immigrants, these are the ones who aren’t criminals. And criminal background check was part of eligibility for DACA. DACA applied to young people between the ages of 15 and 30 who had been brought here through no fault of their own–again, this implicit criminalization within the language of DACA. But his priority enforcement program, along with DACA, really created certain groups of people who could feel that they were freed from the threat of deportation, at least temporarily.

Trump has tried to overturn all of that. And one of the things that’s been notable about Trump’s policies is he says he is against illegal immigration. Lots of people say I’m not against immigration, just illegal immigration. But Trump’s policies have tried to illegalize so much that was formerly legal. And we see this with the banning of immigrants from certain countries, with his attempt to do away with DACA, his attempts to do away with TPS, Temporary Protected Status, which many people from Central America, Haiti, other countries, have been granted a temporary legal status in the United States.

So this answer is kind of a jumble, but I guess we do see an exacerbation and continuity of the worst parts of what we saw under Obama, and an abandonment of what we saw, could have been seen as the best parts under Obama. Definitely there’s a difference in language, in that Obama only wanted to criminalize some immigrants. Trump basically wants to criminalize all immigrants. And this fake university is just an example of that, that is turning people who, under any logical interpretation of anything, are the ones who followed the rules, who waited in line, who got their visas, who did it the right way. But finding ways to turn them into criminals to enable their deportability.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but thank you for closing the circle, so to speak. And I hope we’ll come back to you very soon to further look at this issue. I was speaking to Aviva Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University. Thanks again, Aviva, for having joined us today.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Aviva Chomsky

Aviva Chomsky is a Professor of History and coordinator of Latin American Studies at the Salem State University and author of many books the latest 'Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal'.