Donald Trump made his formal entry into politics with the racism and xenophobia that would become a hallmark of his lightning-rod candidacy and, ultimately, his first year in the Oval Office.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said in his presidential announcement speech. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
“It’s coming from more than Mexico,” Trump continued. “It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably — from the Middle East.”
Fast forward 2 1/2 years. Trump is wrapping up his first calendar year as president, and he’s failed to make policy progress on many of his campaign promises. But when it comes to immigration, the president has proven to be much more than just a big talker. In his first year, he’s significantly uprooted immigration policy, tearing apart the families of longtime residents and erecting significant barriers in the face of would-be immigrants to the United States.
“I think it’s clear that this administration wants to bring any sort of immigration to the U.S. to a halt, whether it’s legal or what’s touted as illegal immigration,” said Annaluisa Padilla, a California-based immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The administration simply does not want any immigrants.”
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, released a policy brief this month on shifts in immigration policy since Trump’s election that reached the same conclusion.
“For a long time, there’s been bipartisan consensus that immigration overall is good for the country, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for society, and it’s integral to our history as a country,” report co-author Sarah Pierce told The Intercept. “But this president has completely broken from that history and is seriously advocating for a reduction in legal immigration.”
Indeed, the White House recently called for an end to “chain migration,” which it defines as “the process by which foreign nationals resettle within the U.S. and subsequently bring over their foreign relatives, who then have the opportunity to bring over their foreign relatives, and so on.” The term is popular among anti-immigrant hard-liners, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. The president has also endorsed the RAISE Act, a Senate Republican bill that proposes major cuts to family immigration and the creation of a points system to select immigrants for employment sponsorship.
By pivoting his focus to legal forms of immigration, Trump is demonstrating that his immigration agenda is driven by xenophobia, not just an insistence on punishing those with an unauthorized presence in the United States.
In the first week of his presidency, Trump signed three of his seven executive orders on immigration: the first iteration of the embattled travel ban and two orders related to ramping up immigration enforcement. His executive order on interior enforcement, among other things, essentially made every person in the United States without proper legal documents a priority for deportation, a significant departure from a 2014 Barack Obama policy that prioritized immigrants who posed a national security threat, serious criminals, and recent border crossers.
From January 20 to September 30, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 61,094 immigrants from the interior of the country, a 37 percent increase over the same time period in 2016. During that period, ICE arrested 110,568 people, a 42 percent increase over the previous year. With the heightened interior enforcement came the widespread targeting of long-term residents with strong community and family ties to the United States, people whom the Obama administration had allowed to stay in the country as long as they periodically checked in with ICE.
While nearly 74 percent of people arrested by ICE during the 2017 fiscal year had criminal histories, nearly 11 percent had no known criminal history, and about 16 percent had pending criminal charges — meaning they had not been convicted of a crime.
Even those with criminal convictions “are not the dangerous, violent criminals highlighted in the president’s rhetoric and in ICE press releases,” a Human Rights Watch analysis concluded. “One in three ‘criminal’ arrests involved someone whose most serious crime was an immigration offense, almost always the act of entering the country illegally. About 16 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and another 15 percent had a traffic offense as their most serious crime. Fewer than 1 percent had been convicted of a homicide, and the most serious offense of only 19 percent, fewer than one in five, included violent or potentially violent crimes.”
The total number of deportations in the 2017 fiscal year — 226,119 — is lower than the number of removals during the Bush and Obama years. This difference can be partially attributed to a significant drop in border crossings. “The decrease in ICE’s overall removal numbers from FY2016 to FY2017 was primarily due to the decline in border apprehensions in 2017,” according to ICE, “possibly reflecting an increased deterrent effect from ICE’s stronger interior enforcement efforts.”
Padilla, the immigration attorney from California, said many of her clients are now living with anxiety. “They’re desperate and feel that they can’t even leave their houses without the fear that they can’t return back to their families,” she said.
The Trump administration has also reduced refugee resettlement to a historic low. The outgoing Obama administration set a refugee admissions ceiling of 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year; within a week of entering office, Trump slashed that figure to 50,000 and temporarily suspended refugee admissions for 120 days. Ultimately, the United States admitted 53,716 refugees in 2017. In September, the administration set a ceiling of 45,000 refugee admissions for the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest it’s been since the 1980 enactment of the Refugee Act, despite a global refugee crisis. The reason, the State Department explained at the time, was to focus more efforts on the Department of Homeland Security’s “need to tackle the domestic asylum backlog.”
Two months into the current fiscal year, the United States had admitted 3,108 refugees — about 7 percent of the target. (In the same period last year, 18,300 refugees — about 17 percent of the 110,000-person ceiling — had been resettled.) The administration also ended a refugee and parole program for Central American youth.
The Trump administration has implemented more stringent vetting procedures for refugees from 11 countries — a list believed to include Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, countries with some of the highest numbers of refugees — but has also added layers of security screening for refugees from all over.
And that’s not the only way Trump has followed through on his promise of “extreme vetting.”
Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, noted that while the president is limited by the fact that most changes to legal immigration need to go through Congress, “the administration has done things that maybe reduced legal immigration, but at the very least have at least increased the obstacles for people who want to come to the United States legally.”
Those measures include mandatory in-person interviews for applicants for employment-based permanent residency; an increase in the amount of information would-be immigrants must provide, including, in some cases, 15 years of travel and employment history; and requests for social media account information.
The enhanced vetting procedures and Trump’s virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric may already have had a chilling effect around the world. According to the Migration Policy Institute report, tourism to the United States in the first six months of 2017 dropped nearly 4 percent compared to the same period last year, universities have reported drops in international student enrollment, and the demand for employment-based visas dropped for the first time since the Great Recession. Still, Pierce cautioned, “in the data world of immigration, it’s very hard to draw a direct line between a cause and effect.”
Trump is also tearing away the temporary forms of relief available to groups of unauthorized immigrants who were previously able to work and live in the United States without fear of deportation. In September, the president announced the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that shielded from deportation nearly 800,000 people brought illegally to the United States as minors. While he also urged Congress to pass a replacement program before DACA’s end in March, no real progress was made on that front this year.
The Department of Homeland Security has also canceled Temporary Protected Status — a form of humanitarian protection for citizens of countries embroiled in violent conflict or suffering from a natural disaster — for citizens of Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, saying, despite evidence to the contrary, that those countries are now safe to return to. The agency has signaled it may end TPS for Honduras, which received an extension until July 2018, and for El Salvador, from which about 60 percent of 400,000 TPS recipients hail.
In addition to dealing with clients’ overall anxiety, immigration lawyers are experiencing new challenges in the courtroom. Since January, Padilla said, immigration judges have been reluctant to grant extensions to give lawyers and their clients time to properly prepare for their court hearings. These procedures are particularly onerous in asylum cases, Padilla noted, because it often takes months for applicants to obtain documents from their home countries and to find experts and witnesses who can testify in court.
“We have had a court backlog for quite a few years, but what I saw in the last year is, ‘Let’s just get this case done. It doesn’t matter if it’s well-prepared or not. Get it before me, counsel,’” Padilla said. “And that’s the challenge. It does not allow for proper due process for clients.”