Last week, a Brooklyn army base called the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency when a pizza delivery man could not produce adequate documentation. The man in question, Pablo Villavicencio-Calderon, is a 35-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant, with an American wife, and two young daughters. News of his detention and impending deportation led to a protest rally that began outside the Fort Hamilton Army base and ended after several protestors who had linked arms and stood in the middle of a street were arrested for disturbing the peace.
A member of New York’s city council later explained that Villavicencio-Calderon had used ID issued by the municipality when making previous deliveries to the base. The local New York ID was created specifically to help undocumented immigrants transact business with city agencies, and to provide proof of identity for the NYPD and other city departments.
New York has proudly identified itself a ‘sanctuary city’ that stands against the xenophobia of the Trump administration. Shortly after the protests, state Governor Andrew Cuomo offered to provide Villavicencio with free legal representation. Cuomo also issued a statement which said the detention “goes against everything we believe in. Detaining a hardworking man, separating a father from his children and tearing apart communities doesn’t make America safe, and a wrong-minded immigration policy grounded in bias and cruelty doesn’t make America great.”
This local flashpoint speaks to a larger political struggle that is unfolding within America, with increasing complexity, as president Trump accelerates the deportation of undocumented immigrants which began under his predecessor. Trump’s border wall used to be the most egregious political symbol of the new dispensation, but the deliberate separation of immigrant children from their parents, regardless of the consequences, has now overtaken it. Earlier this week, Democrats and moderate Republicans were scrambling to improvise a fix to the vexed question of immigration reform, particularly for the so-called DREAMers who have been stranded in a no man’s land since Trump cancelled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) last year. Subsequent negotiations have foundered largely because of Trump’s insistence that any new proposals include funding for his border wall.
The horse-trading needed to craft measures that are acceptable to both parties and to the current president has now reached a level of legislative sophistry that would shame a Byzantine diplomat. For despite his near total ignorance of the subject, Trump has managed to impose his nativist views on the immigration policy process. To their irredeemable shame, career politicians like Paul Ryan, and old-school xenophobes like Jeff Sessions, have enabled him at every step of the way. When Trump took office there were hopes that his shoot-then-aim style would be tempered by adult supervision. Instead, he seems to have infantilized his handlers.
Beyond the legislative wrangling, however, the confrontation over immigration is really a struggle to determine who gets to define the meaning of America; it is a debate over whether the country still wants to see itself as a land of immigrants, as a place that accepts and absorbs other races, cultures and religions, that takes outsiders and remakes them as Americans. Trump’s base, and the large and growing faction of the Republican party that supports him, clearly does not want this. Whether the rest of America is able, or willing, to resist the drift of the new nativism, is a question that has yet to be answered.