It seemed like a typical Tuesday morning last month when Juan Esquivel noticed a helicopter hovering over the East Texas trailer-parts factory where the Mexican native had worked for much of his 23 years in the United States — doing a hard manufacturing job that few Americans are lining up to do, paying taxes to the federal government and building a middle-class life for his wife and two kids in a quiet community called Honey Grove.
Esquivel's wife was cooking tostados for that night when — as recounted recently by Emily Foxhall in the Houston Chronicle — she got the first text message from her husband at 10:27 a.m., in Spanish: "Immigration is here."
The second text came at 12:20: "They have us."
The Aug. 28 raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE — against the Load Trail factory near Paris, Texas, was the largest workplace immigration raid by federal agents in the last decade, with Esquivel one of 159 workers ultimately detained that morning. Yet in Donald Trump's America, where a holy war against undocumented immigration has become a fact of life, and where the latest assault has to compete for airtime against nonstop scandal and sordid tweets, the story wasn't even a blip. But the echoes continue in a working-class community that locals describe as "quaint" but where many residents are now afraid to leave their house.
We've grown far too comfortably numb to the defining feature of Trump's presidency, some 20 months in.
If you have any doubt that America in 2018 is ruled by this one simple four-letter word, stop in your local bookstore (if you still have one) and pick up a copy of Bob Woodward's new book, the fastest selling U.S. tome of the last several years. There were a lot of things that the famed Watergate journalist could have called his chronicle of chaos and dysfunction inside the White House — "Crazytown" is certainly a fitting contribution to our political discourse — but in the end he went simply with Fear, with the president bathed in a loud shade of fire engine red.
Maybe the reason that Trump's presidency still seems so jarring after all these months is that — while, for the most part, the 43 men (Cleveland twice) who came before him sought on one level or another to soothe and reassure the sometimes fragile American psyche — Trump and his worst minions like deportation-whisperer Stephen Miller wake up every day thinking up new ways to inflame what FDR famously described as "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Fear isn't a bug in this presidency. It's a feature.
Trumpism only works with fear as its lubricant, and it hits everybody in one way or the other. For the 60 percent who disapprove of Trump in the Oval Office — most of them strongly — there is fear for the future of American democracy, and of what a man who built his racist, xenophobic and misogynistic presidency on a bed of 5,000 lies might do tomorrow. That's bad, but it's nothing like the fear felt by those at Ground Zero of his hate-based policies — the hardworking, taxpaying moms and dads of communities like Honey Grove, Texas, terrified of a knock on the door or a chopper overhead.
But don't forget the flip side of this grim equation: Trump can't govern, stave off impeachment in 2019 or even dream of reelection in 2020 without whipping up fear among his own supporters — elevating a tiny platoon of rock-throwing Antifa into a large scary army, portraying any new progressive as the next Maduro, and, most importantly, keeping his angry base inflamed against The Other, whether that means blasting football players protesting police brutality or lying about crime rates among undocumented immigrants. After a year and eight months, fear is Trump's only card.
Just this weekend, it was reported that Trump's 2016 strategist, Steve Bannon, is back with a new documentary targeting midterm voters called Trump@War that "features scenes of the president's supporters being punched, kicked, and clubbed by anti-Trump protesters" — which dovetails perfectly with both Trump and his surrogates at Fox News warning of "left-wing violence" if the GOP sustains heavy losses in November.
Why? Wrote Bloomberg Businessweek: "Bannon says the bloody images of Trump supporters being attacked are a necessary motivator because voters have responded to Republican efforts to tout their tax cut and raise alarm that Democrats could impeach the president with a yawn."
It's almost breathtaking to ponder what a change this style of "leadership" is for America. Not only did Franklin Roosevelt understand that convincing Americans not to be afraid was critical to beating back the Great Depression, but in 1941 — the last time that fascism was on the march worldwide — FDR made "freedom from fear" a pillar of his famous Four Freedoms speech. Future presidents would get this. Bill Clinton won two terms because — despite his many flaws — he felt your pain. Now Trump is here to inflict it.
And immigrant communities are where that rubber meets the road. Last week it came out that Trump's Department of Homeland Security had, with little fanfare, used budgetary machinations to move about $200 million away from agencies that largely help people in moments of great need — like hurricane-responding FEMA ($9.8 million) and the Coast Guard ($29 million) — and over to ICE for its rapidly expanding project of creating an American gulag of detention centers. You can argue that $200 million is a drop in the bucket of our massive federal budget, but a budget is a statement of political priorities, and Trump's priorities are less help and more terror.
Indeed, the list of the fearful keeps expanding — not just migrants who are here without documentation, but desperate refugees who are being turned away in record numbers, naturalized citizens who are being told their cases may be reopened, and — most recently — as many as 350,000 people who were once told their immigration cases were closed and now Team Trump suddenly wants to deport.
But the most unconscionable situation is the thousands of migrant youths that the U.S. government currently has locked up in its rapidly expanding archipelago of detention centers — tents rapidly erected in the arid desert or other substandard facilities rife with abuse. This was a big national story two months ago — kids in cages, some forcibly separated from their moms or dads at the southern border — but now the outrage had faded as new, outlandish acts by Team Trump pile up.
We need to remain outraged. We should be outraged that, failing miserably to comply with an order from a federal judge, the Trump administration has still not reunited parents with more than 200 detained kids — children who are likely to be traumatized for the rest of their lives. We should be outraged that Team Trump is fighting aggressively in court — even after all the bad publicity over family separations — for the ability to keep kids in cages and tents indefinitely. And now we should be outraged that the number of migrant children in custody has quintupled in one year under Trump.
Buried under the flood of other news, from Hurricane Florence to Hurricane Manafort, the New York Times reported last week that the number of youths that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is holding in custody soared from 2,400 in May 2017 to 12,800 kids a year later — trapped in an already flawed system that is now collapsing from the strain. That's a shocking increase, and only some of it is fueled by stepped-up border enforcement, including separating families.
The biggest problem, the Times reported, is that immigrant families who've sponsored these kids — usually family members or others from their close-knit community — have stopped stepping forward to bring these kids into stable homes where they can go to school and live in a loving environment, without fear. And the reason sponsors aren't coming forward is that they'e afraid of ICE looking into their immigration status, or at the status of their loved ones. Again, that's a feature, not a bug. In June, the Trump administration began demanding fingerprints not just from sponsors but others in their household.
Team Trump would rather keep these kids in tent cities in the 100-plus-degree desert — the one in Tornillo, Texas, is being tripled in size — rather than place them in homes, and taxpayers like you and me are footing the bill. This is immoral. These children are pawns in a cynical political game to keep an authoritarian president in power, and they're not the only victims living in fear. In American communities from Honey Grove to Philadelphia's Hunting Park, law-abiding residents are afraid to turn in criminals. And women are afraid to report the men who are beating them. Is this reign of terror really the America we want to be?