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Trump's mass deportation vision is horrific. Democrats ought to call him out.

Why Dems shouldn’t try to compete with Trump on immigration.

These days, Democrats are scrambling to prove that they can be “tough” on immigration ahead of the 2024 elections. But what they should be doing is spending more time spotlighting how former President Donald Trump’s horrifying plan for dealing with undocumented migrants threatens to further tear apart the fabric of American society.

According to a new Washington Post report, Trump is seeking to pursue an unprecedented and militarized regime of mass deportation of migrants that would have tremendous humanitarian and social costs. Democrats need to be loudly and confidently offering humane alternatives and hammering the GOP over its awful plan.  

Trump isn’t worried about the dark spectacle of mass deportation camps — they’re part of the point.

Trump plans to reinstate all his previous nativist policies if he re-enters office — and he has refused to rule out reviving his abominable policy of family separation. But he’s placing extra emphasis this time around on a pledge to launch “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” Trump and his advisers, according to the Post, have discussed constructing a network of mass deportation camps. That detail is grim, and it underscores how Trump has learned from the failures of his first term when his deportation efforts were constrained in part by the fact there weren’t enough facilities to hold all the people he wanted to remove. 

Trump isn’t worried about the dark spectacle of mass deportation camps — they’re part of the point. As Trump has deployed racist and fascistic rhetoric about how migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” he’s priming the public to expect a deportation regime that treats migrants as subhuman and undeserving of basic rights. Trump’s longtime adviser Stephen  Miller has discussed the idea of sending National Guard troops from red states into blue states to help execute the plan. 

On the campaign trail, Trump and his allies have cited “the Eisenhower model” to describe this vision, referring to former President Dwight Eisenhower’s notorious mass deportation program, “Operation Wetback,” that took its name from a derogatory slur against Mexican migrants. In the 1950s, federal agents conducted aggressive raids and rapidly deported hundreds of thousands of migrants by truck, train, plane and cargo ship. The enterprise was a humanitarian nightmare, as a Vox report recounting the operation explained:

Conditions for deported immigrants were horrifying. A later congressional investigation described conditions on one cargo ship as a “penal hell ship” and compared it to a slave ship on the Middle Passage. Immigrants who were dumped over the border in trucks didn’t fare any better. They were shoved into trucks “like cows,” driven 10 miles into Mexico, and unceremoniously dumped into the desert — often in punishing heat, without water. Families were torn apart.

At the time, The Los Angeles Times described the prison camps, surrounded by wire fences, as “concentration camps.” Columbia University historian Mae Ngai estimates that nearly 90 migrants died of sunstroke after being stranded in the desert.

Promoting such an extremist policy vision is a politically risky move by Trump. The public generally backs increased enforcement at the border in the abstract, but there is no evidence that there is mass appetite for migrants to be shoved into detention centers that will kick off yet another debate about whether they constitute concentration camps. Trump’s most brutal strategies at the border attracted lots of negative attention during his first term, and most Americans opposed Trump’s family separation policy.

Trump's extreme rhetoric is also a reminder that President Joe Biden and Democrats cannot and should not try to compete with Trump and Republicans on how tough they can be on migrants. If Trump is using racist rhetoric about bloodlines and glamorizing a policy regime called “Operation Wetback,” Democrats should not be working with Republicans on hardline policy, but scorning them and stigmatizing them for their extremist agenda. Democrats have an opportunity to fold their criticism of Trump’s immigration policy into a broader narrative about defending multicultural democracy and human rights.

There’s nothing wrong with Democrats arguing for common sense border security enforcement, but Biden and the Democrats have strained to appear more hawkish on immigration lately. Biden is contemplating an executive action that will make it harder for migrants to get asylum and easier to deport them, and he’s used almost Trumpian-sounding rhetoric in his recent promise to “shut down” the border. Instead, Democrats should use Republicans' extremism against them and confidently back humane immigration policy that doesn't vilify a vulnerable population. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it’s also good politics.