The Shutdown Makes Trump’s Priorities Painfully Clear

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees will stop receiving paychecks, but deportations of Mauritanians continue.

Would-be immigrants sit in a police bus in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, after being detained while trying to leave for Europe.
Would-be immigrants sit in a police bus in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, after being detained while trying to leave for Europe. (Juan Medina / Reuters)

During the government shutdown, the Secret Service is protecting President Donald Trump and his administration without pay—yet the deportation of Africans continues apace. This week, 800,000 federal employees are expected to stop receiving paychecks, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement is shelling out for a pricey charter flight in an effort to remove a small handful of  Mauritanian immigrants, perhaps as few as two.

Anyone who has logged on to the internet this year knows of Trump’s obsession with drumming up an artificial immigration crisis, warning of migrants surging across the southern border. But his government has the same single-minded fixation on removing immigrants who are long-term residents of the United States.

Last September, I wrote about how ICE has turned its attention to the Mauritanians of Columbus, Ohio. These West Africans were victims of ethnic cleansing. In the 1990s, they fled from the Arab government of their country, which had attempted to empty its borderlands of black people—a violent campaign that featured massacre, torture, rape, and enslavement. When the black Mauritanians came to the United States, they applied for asylum. Although they had a strong case for sanctuary, they didn’t speak English. They were betrayed by scam artists they hired to fill out their asylum claims, and so were never granted the refuge that they deserved.

Until the Trump era, the American immigration system implicitly conceded the validity of their claims. Although judges had ordered their removal, ICE never made the Mauritanians a priority. The government let them stay. Over the years, which turned into decades, the Mauritanians opened businesses; they became fans of Ohio State football; they were implanted in American soil and became citizens in all but name.

With the arrival of a new president in 2017, that sense of permanence and safety vanished in a flash. Pillars of the Mauritanian community were detained by ICE. Suddenly, ICE demanded that residents visit its offices with greater frequency; agents began to show up at private homes. ICE created a sense of fear that provoked some Mauritanians to flee to Canada of their own volition, rather than risk a return to their country of birth.

It doesn’t take a bleeding-heart liberal to see the immorality of ICE’s focus on the Mauritanians. In a very different context, members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus in the House have enumerated the despicable qualities of the Mauritanian government. They urged the IMF to stop funding the Mauritanian government, which the conservatives accused of having a “heinous human rights record.” Even the Trump administration acknowledged this. Last November, it rewrote its trade agreement with Mauritania to punish the country for its continued practice of slavery. To return the black Mauritanians to their native land is to place them in the arms of a government that has tortured and imprisoned its citizens for the color of their skin.

Last week, ICE brought four Mauritanian men from Ohio to Louisiana, in preparation for the flight. The Board of Immigration Appeals then stepped in, blocking the deportation of two of the men; the other two have appeals pending, but may be deported before they are decided. Although ICE is forging ahead with deportations, its public-affairs office was not available to comment on the cases, due to the shutdown.

Food stamps will likely go unfunded this month; workers will fail to make mortgage payments. Trump might not be able to find the cash to pay the agents who keep his family safe, but he has the cash to send longtime law-abiding residents to their likely doom. His priorities are perfectly clear.