The Trump presidency has made more than 400 changes to US immigration policy since it took office, waging what immigration advocates are calling ‘Trump’s war on immigrants.’
The Trump administration went on the offensive in January 2017, accelerating changes to immigration policy in a series of rapidfire executive actions. A report released by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in July catalogs more than 400 revisions which have swiftly and ‘dramatically reshaped the U.S. immigration system’ in the last four years.
The sweeping changes impact “everything from border and interior enforcement, to refugee resettlement and the asylum system, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the immigration courts, and vetting and visa processes,” states the report, and places tough restrictions on potential tourists, foreign workers and international students.
“Many of the changes reflect the administrations’ really strong knowledge of immigration law,” confirmed Sarah Pierce, a policy expert who co-authored the report, at a briefing on immigration system changes hosted by Ethnic Media Services on August 7.
The new regulations reflect the administration’s willingness to enforce technicalities “that have been on books for years,” said Pierce, but have rarely been implemented. Those penalties and restrictions are now being used to restrict immigration into the country, reflecting emerging trends in the administration’s anti-immigration agenda.
What Laws have Changed?
The consensus among immigration experts at the briefing was that the Trump administration has used the current national crises to further their political agenda with executive orders that significantly reduce the flow of legal immigrants into the country.
Ignazia Rodrigues, immigration policy advocate at the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) described the push to add a citizenship question to the census as an example of the administration’s anti-immigrant policy.
Most of the changes have been implemented by executive fiat without going through Congress, explained Pierce. Acting on the rhetoric that immigration poses a threat to the nation’s security and economy, the administration has doubled down on reducing immigration into the country, driving reform through ‘layered changes’ on a series of regulations, policy and programs.
For example, under a new revision, ICE can enforce a1996 law to levy exorbitant fines of $799 a day on unauthorized immigrants who remain in the country in violation of a removal order.
In another draconian example, the Trump administration has expanded the definition of who fits the Public Charge rule, which bars foreign nationals who receive or are deemed likely to receive public benefits from becoming legal permanent residents. The rule uses the totality of the circumstances test to evaluate a broad set of metrics such as education, English proficiency, income, jobs, health and family size to deny entry to applicants.
As a result, a large number of green card holders are at risk of denial MPI reports, because at least 69% of recent green-card recipients have at least one of the negative factors that could be weighted against them under the regulation. The ruling will disfavor women, the elderly and children, as well as nationals from Central America and Mexico. Findings from MPI also show that immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America are less likely to be favored under the new Public Charge rule, said Pierce.
Though these changes may seem like minor technicalities, taken altogether they will have a monumental impact in dismantling and reconstructing the immigration system in the long term, and significantly change the face of U.S. immigration.
The MPI report finds that these critical changes will result in closing off humanitarian benefits, sealing the southern border, creating hurdles for both legal and unauthorized immigrants already in country and reducing legal immigration into the country.
However, the advent of the coronavirus has fueled the administration’s immigration offensive.
“The pandemic has only accelerated the pace of changes this administration has made,” said Pierce, identifying three major changes enforced since the COVID-19 crisis began, and the implication for prospective immigrants.
The administration invoked a 1944 public health law that allows the Surgeon General to restrict the entry of individuals deemed a public health threat, and block people at the US-Mexico border. The order, issued directly from the CDC director Robert Redfield, allows border security to bypass established protocols and expel children and asylum seekers from countries with communicable diseases, effectively ending asylum at the southern border. Human Rights First condemned the CDC order for “ending refugee and child protections at the border indefinitely, endangering rather than saving lives.”
Then, on April 22, President Trump signed a proclamation restricting permanent immigration in order to protect American workers and their jobs. The proclamation and the follow up June 22 proclamation restricting temporary workers, limits the entry of foreign workers (on H1B visas for example) and prospective immigrants applying for employment-based green cards from abroad. It also restricts ‘chain migration’ by temporarily suspending entry for many prospective citizens applying for family-based green cards from other countries. Effectively, citizens and green card holders are prevented from sponsoring family members – parents, siblings, spouses and children – to join them in the US.
Losing skilled foreign workers would negatively impact innovation and job growth especially in the high tech sector said immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla, as several studies show that “foreign workers in STEM fields are critical to the innovation in the growth of patents,” and “immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses than US born natives.”
However, the restrictions continue unabated. Travel bans still exist for foreign nationals traveling from 31 different countries, said Pierce, and the President recently signed an executive order restricting the ability of federal contractors to hire foreign nationals; the new order also referenced further restrictions proposed in the future for the H1B program.
These orders achieve what the administration has been working towards long before the pandemic began, remarked Pierce. “It’s hard to imagine them walking back any of these restrictions, even after the pandemic is no longer a prevalent issue.”
It’s uncertain whether future administrations would have the time, resources and willingness to reverse the restrictions said Pierce, adding that some reversals would require careful consideration; for example, if restrictions were lifted at the southern border it could result in a surge of unauthorized arrivals.
As the country begins the slow process of recovery from multiple crises – a pandemic, an economic slowdown and racial injustice uprisings, “It’s hard for me to picture a future administration investing this much in immigration,” said Pierce.
However, she pointed out that a future president could easily reverse the original 2017 travel ban which is still in place and expanded in 2020, because it would send “a visible strong signal that the US is changing its tone on immigration.”
It’s important to note that every one of these executive actions have been contested by lawsuits filed against the administration said Peddibhotla. “This is definitely not a great way for us to be governing and managing our immigration process. But it’s incredibly important that the lawsuits continue in order to hold the administration accountable.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.