Starting on October 18, the Department of Homeland Security will collect “social media handles and aliases, associated identifiable information and search results” on immigrants, including U.S. residents and citizens, and anyone who uses social media to communicate with them. According to Joanne Talbot, a DHS spokeswoman, the agency is already monitoring social media “to protect the homeland.” But does the homeland need more protection from immigrants online — or from the surveillance state?
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump told us Mexican immigrants “have lots of problems” and are bringing drugs and crime with them over the border. Trump’s views that immigrants are making American society worse, shared by 37 percent of Americans, is driving his administration’s policies in the form of banning refugees, ending protections for Dreamers brought here at a young age, and cracking down on sanctuary cities.
But the war on immigrants did not start with Trump. In 1996, then-President Clinton instituted new penalties and mandates targeting immigrants and laid the groundwork for federal, state and local law enforcement to combine their surveillance and deportation efforts. After 9/11, then-President Bush almost doubled the size of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and set a new record for over 2 million removals. President Obama broke his predecessor’s record, but directed removal efforts largely away from families and children and toward recent border crossers and criminals.
The war on immigrants existed long before Trump and will likely continue long after he is out of office, regardless of which party is in power. He is merely the current face of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, acting as a sort of blunt instrument — and even blunter mouthpiece — for the millions who feel their country is under attack. But those who desire a more secure America should think twice before empowering the federal government to stalk social media, especially since those powers will outlast Trump.
You can find examples of terrible crimes committed by illegal immigrants. But we should always be careful about expanding the size and scope of government based on isolated tragedies. Public policy should not be held hostage to sensationalized anecdotes and poorly researched news. It should strive to be reasonable, yet responsive to the dangers people face, without requiring inordinate sacrifices of privacy and liberty.
Native-born Americans have higher incarceration rates than both illegal and legal immigrants. Violent crime fell 48 percent from the 1990s to 2013, while the number of undocumented immigrants tripled. There’s even Cato Institute research that suggests, “With few exceptions, immigrants are less crime prone than natives or have no effect on crime rates.” It’s no surprise that the recent ICE crackdowns rounded up almost 500 people, of which around one-third had no criminal record, and among those with convictions, driving under the influence was the most common crime. When people aren’t the violent monsters you paint them to be, you resort to deporting them for reckless yet relatively petty offenses.
This new DHS policy doesn’t just target the supposedly criminal immigrants Trump spoke of on the campaign trail. It applies just as much to U.S. citizens and residents who have already gone through the laborious and intensive process of entering the country legally, as well as non-immigrant citizens who happen to interact with immigrants online. This is on top of the unconstitutional stops and interrogations Border Patrol routinely subject Americans to already.
The Trump administration is demanding we sacrifice even more of our privacy with the hope that a bigger, badder DHS will use the information to somehow stop a non-existent crime spree. Rather than “draining the swamp,” Trump is doubling down on the same moves made by Clinton, Bush, and Obama to further restrict liberty in the name of false security.
Shouldn’t small government conservatives be more skeptical of taking power out of the hands of private individuals and putting it in the hands of the federal government and its many faceless, unelected bureaucrats and busybodies? The Second Amendment is surely not worth ditching to respond to immigration, so why endanger the Fourth? What will the effects be on freedom of speech when a Democrat gets back in the White House and sees these shiny, new surveillance powers?
So far in the 21st century it has primarily been war abroad that justified bigger, more intrusive government at home, despite the exaggerated threats to our safety. But it’s not only foreign intervention that spills over into domestic tyranny. Now, the machinery tasked with carrying out the war on immigrants may target Americans of all backgrounds, ultimately giving immigrants, legal or illegal, and native citizens a common threat to their liberty.
Cory Massimino is the Senior Academic Programs Chair at Students For Liberty, the Mutual Exchange Coordinator at the Center for a Stateless Society and a Young Voices Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @corymassimino