You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
En Masse

From Texas to Massachusetts

On the border in a fascist America

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

“Welcome to the nightmare in my brain,” said Heather Axford, director of Central American Legal Assistance, when I asked to interview her about a possible second Trump administration’s impact on immigration issues. CALA was founded in 1986, in response to the wave of refugees fleeing the Salvadoran civil war, by Anne Pilsbury—she retired as director in 2023, but remains as senior attorney—and Sister Peggy Walsh, a nun, and operates from the basement and a small office of the Transfiguration Church in an ungentrified pocket of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the edge of a Hasidic neighborhood. I first met Axford in 2009, when she was a recent graduate of University of Virginia Law School and had been at CALA for one year. She had a radiant, energetic presence then and still does.

Stephen Miller, Trump’s key immigration adviser, has vowed that Trump is planning such an enormously ambitious and “spectacular immigration crackdown” should he return to power that “the immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”

But Axford knows what is coming if Trump is reelected. She won’t be surprised by any of it. But that’s what fills her with apprehension and sorrow. Axford’s immigration attorney work has overlapped with four presidencies, from George W. Bush to Joe Biden. “The shift from Obama to Trump was the most dramatic,” she said. Axford, who also teaches a class in refugee and asylum law at New York Law School, recalled how, starting in January 2017, every class began with a recounting of the previous week’s changes to immigration laws and norms. “Things that you took for granted,” she said, “that you didn’t realize were just norms. For example, prosecutorial discretion. In immigration court, the prosecutors, like all prosecutors, are supposed to have prosecutorial discretion. That means you don’t go to the mat on every single case just because. Your job isn’t to deport everyone in front of you, it’s to enforce the law as the law stands. If you look at someone, and they are clearly eligible for a form of relief, you don’t have to fight that. The first thing that happened in January ’17 is that that ended. There was no more room to negotiate. The marching orders were to fight every case, to oppose every granting of asylum.”

The new immigration policies, and changes, put forward during the last Trump administration, policies that—even though many were subsequently blocked or tied up in the courts—Trump and Miller have promised to bring back and expand in a second Trump term, include the following, and it’s a grim list: the travel ban that targeted even potential tourists from seven countries, most of which were majority Muslim; the termination of DACA, the popular Dream Act, offering protections and rights to young people brought to the United States as children; the ending of Temporary Protected Status, for migrants from unsafe countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, many of whom have been residing in the United States, working, starting families and businesses, paying taxes, for at least 20 years now; the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which denied people who have passed credible fear interviews the right to await the processing of their asylum claims here; the Covid-era closing of the border to asylum claims, the reinstating of which a new Trump administration would supposedly justify by arguing that migrants bring other infectious diseases; the denial of Fourth Amendment rights to undocumented migrants, encouraging Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies to make warrantless arrests in private homes and carry out workplace raids; and the infamous child separation policies, which Trump has refused to disavow.

Let’s start with the border. The press has especially focused on Trump’s promise to round up undocumented immigrants in the United States, 10 million or more, and to place them in vast, militarized detention camps near the border, most likely in Texas, to await, without any due process, their deportations. Such an assault on normative human and legal rights is bound, of course, to be contested in the courts. But the Supreme and lower courts are expected to be far more favorable to Trump this time around.

Much of the U.S. side of the border, then, would become a militarized landscape with bleakly sanitized detention camps warehousing and hiding from outside view the suffering of millions of adults and children removed from their homes to be sent back to countries many no longer know at all. Families will be divided, with U.S.-born children often left behind. Just as during the last Trump administration, some deportees will meet violent deaths at the hands of the same organized, criminal forces they or their parents originally fled. “Remain in Mexico” having been ruled illegal by Mexican courts, it’s harder to exactly foresee what awaits there. But, as before, migrants may mass in border cities with conditions like those of refugee camps. Denied access to asylum, the desperate families and children will seek out ever more dangerous crossings. Already, record numbers of dead migrants are being found in remote parts of West Texas and New Mexico. As president, Trump spoke admiringly of Israel’s separation walls and proposed that U.S. troops shoot migrants in the legs “to slow them down.” Perhaps now courts will bow to his wishes.

“It took them a while to figure things out,” said Axford of that first Trump term. “It won’t take them a while the next time around.” The Trump administration’s legal entanglements did little to blunt its assault on the right to asylum. U.S. asylum law is narrowly defined: It is limited to those with legitimate fears of violence resulting from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political stance or opinion. Yet those laws undergird the perception of the United States as a country of refuge for those in flight from such potentially lethal persecutions, and as an upholder of our national obligations under international human rights law. In the landmark INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca case of 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that even “a 10 percent chance of being shot, tortured, or otherwise persecuted” should be enough to be granted asylum. Under Trump, asylum law began to undergo something like a macabre heart transplant: the replacing of a still beating heart with a cadaverous one.

“By 2020, we had completely shut down access to the U.S. asylum system,” Stephen Miller boasted during a November 14, 2023, interview on The Charlie Kirk Show. “Everybody was being expelled, without any ability to apply for asylum in the United States. We were able to build that architecture under President Trump’s leadership.”

The specifics of how asylum laws came to be swiftly undone outside of legislative acts or the jurisdiction of higher federal courts, as Axford explained it, were a surprise to me. She cited cases of domestic violence as an example. “Case law in this country allowed for grants of asylum to those who have survived severe domestic violence and who could show that there is no place in their country where they can be safe, and that they can’t rely on their own government,” said Axford. “It’s hard to prove, but domestic violence in these circumstances can be a basis for asylum, which with women from Central America is very important, because they are often bringing exactly that.” Before Trump, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals had recognized severe domestic violence as a basis for asylum. But U.S. attorneys general have broad unilateral powers in this area, and in June 2018, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions used this power in a case involving a Salvadoran woman to end this practice. The change extended to victims of gang and cartel violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, and LGBTQ cases. “Overnight, a case I had that was a straightforward grantable claim suddenly was not,” Axford said. In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland restored the old law. In 2022, said Axford, her client was granted asylum, and, in court, the government deferred.

“If you stand to be killed simply because of who your family members are, because your dad pissed off the wrong people, that’s the basis for asylum. It’s hard to imagine a more obvious social group than the family,” said Axford. It was a known practice of gangs to eliminate the families of their enemies. But in 2019, Attorney General William Barr decided that the law only applied to “famous families … only being from a family well-known or important in the country could be the basis for asylum.”

Decisions by attorneys general can be easily overturned by their successors. But if those decisions can be codified and published as new regulations, overturning them becomes a lot harder. The Trump Justice Department, Axford said, “began publishing the new regulations that immigration attorneys called ‘The Death to Asylum Regulations.’” Organizations sued, those regulations were enjoined, and the laws couldn’t be enforced until the lawsuits concluded. “Biden came in, and they walked away from those regulations. But they’ve been written. They’re just sitting there. I think about those all the time.” In a second Trump administration, “the courts won’t necessarily save us from that.”

For the last 20 years, I’ve been visiting New Bedford, Massachusetts, to research the novel that I am now writing. New Bedford is the country’s number one fishing port in terms of profits. It is now mostly Central Americans, especially Mayas from Guatemala, who staff the port’s fish processing houses. Many first fled to New Bedford as refugees from the wars of Central America, wars in which many, many more civilians were slain than combatants, and in which most of those civilians were murdered by U.S.-backed militaries. Many young women I’ve interviewed and gotten to know in New Bedford first worked in the so-called fish houses at ages as young as 14, and some, working night shifts, still managed to go to high school. A few even went on to college; some already have daughters and sons in college. Working in fish houses is the classic job that nobody but immigrants, having no other choice, are willing to take, yet the health of New Bedford’s commercial fishing–driven economy partly depends on them. Many of those women, I’ve learned over the years, fled sexual abuse from gangs or aberrant family members; many, so rightly, were granted asylum. At the Community Economic Development Center, or CEDC, co-founded by Corinn Williams, which has been providing support of all kinds to New Bedford immigrants for over 20 years, springtime is when the offices are swamped every day, even Saturdays, by immigrants needing help filing their tax returns. On one wall, photographs have been displayed of new immigrant homeowners and the houses they’ve purchased. Across the street, the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a worker center led by Adrian Ventura, a Guatemalan Maya who was a war refugee, has organized fish plant employees, among others, on behalf of workers’ rights regardless of immigration status. Most recently, the center won protections against deportation and got work permits for fish plant workers who’d been subjected to workplace abuses, a development Corinn Williams told me she’s seeing reflected this year in immigrants’ tax filings.

In New Bedford, the best-paid employment by far, especially for young men, is on the fishing boats. “The finest kind,” as commercial fishermen are known there, until recently were made up mainly of Portuguese fishermen, immigrants, sons, grandsons, and those from other immigrant groups. Heroin, opioids, and now fentanyl addictions among fishermen have had a devastating and demoralizing effect on the fleet over the last two decades. So have the decline in fish stocks, other ecologically caused problems, the burdensome regulations these have occasioned, and perceptions of a threatened future for New England commercial fishing in general. I’ve heard many stories about fish captains who, at first reluctantly, hired young Guatemalans—many from remote mountain communities and who’d never even seen the ocean—to work on their boats, only to find themselves impressed by how quickly and adeptly those young men adapted to the brutally hard and dangerous work. Now Mexicans and Central Americans comprise an ever-growing part of the fishing fleet. They are paid the same as white crewmates. One fishing boat captain told me about how terrible it was, back in the times of Trump and ICE’s earlier Operation Return to Sender, when agents sometimes lurked on the docks, waiting for fishing boats to come in.

I thought of New Bedford’s Central American community amid the spate of recent stories about a Congressional Budget Office assessment that recent immigrants are the cause of the current economy’s relatively robust state. The CBO even estimates that the surge in immigration will help bolster the U.S. economy by $7 trillion over the next decade.

But Stephen Miller claims: “Mass deportation will be a labor-market disruption celebrated by American workers, who will now be offered higher wages with better benefits to fill these jobs.” Who are these workers he foresees flooding into fish processing houses, clamoring to work 12-hour shifts some weeks—other weeks, there might be no work at all—and standing on their feet in those cold, wet, icy, malodorous workplaces, cutting fish, weighing and packing scallops, prying open clams, holding crab legs one at a time up to suction machines? And how well will they work, and for what wages? How will that affect seafood prices?

When I hear Trump rousing his followers at his rallies with his anti-immigrant slurs, talking about immigrants “poisoning” the country’s blood, calling them animals, and so on, my blood boils, too, but with something like the opposite of the xenophobic and racist euphoria so many of his followers exult in. The exact opposite of euphoria is also a violent feeling. But I do give thanks that my Mexican wife and I are raising our two daughters in Mexico and not in the United States. I don’t know how I would be able to control myself, were my daughters to hear a U.S. president referring to them as animals, and worse. I think of the young children in New Bedford who are regularly exposed to such hatred, and my heart literally contracts and aches.

As I listened to Stephen Miller on The Charlie Kirk Show, his voice reminded me of a tense little finch skittering forward while plucking at a very long line of tiny seeds. Describing Trump’s plans to implement “the largest deportation operation since Eisenhower” and his Operation Wetback, Miller said, “Just imagine the logistics involved in getting illegal aliens back to Pakistan, Cambodia, and, yes, Mexico, the Northern Triangle, Brazil, South America, Panama, China, all throughout the Middle East, and so on and so forth, all throughout the continent of Africa. It is an undertaking every bit as significant, and every bit as daring and ambitious, for example, as building the Panama Canal. It is a great undertaking.”

His insipid little seed-plucking finch voice—“Pakistan, Cambodia, and, yes, Mexico…”—only grew excited when he snarled, “Fake stories, fake families, fake asylum claims! That all stops now!”

Miller has promised a surge of ICE workplace raids such as the one that occurred in New Bedford in 2007 at a sweatshop-type factory. That led to about 150 mostly Guatemalan women being deported, separating over 100 children from at least one parent, mostly mothers, some who were breastfeeding. New Bedford’s community rebounded from that initial trauma. “Guatemalans are made of iron,” said Ventura. “They survived the war; they will survive Trump. He’s not a Putin. We’ll defend our rights.”