Home The Washington Diplomat June 2018 Trump Makes Strides on Ambitious Immigration Agenda, for Better or Worse

Trump Makes Strides on Ambitious Immigration Agenda, for Better or Worse

Trump Makes Strides on Ambitious Immigration Agenda, for Better or Worse

One of the issues that catapulted President Donald Trump into office was immigration. Simply put, he wants less of it, both the illegal and legal kinds, and he has not let up on the issue since assuming the presidency.

Trump hit the ground running soon after his inauguration. Just days after being sworn in, he issued an executive order that temporarily halted refugee admissions and banned U.S.-bound travelers from seven countries with a notably Muslim-majority population. The administration said the suspension was necessary to give the government time to add extra layers of scrutiny for national security purposes. Lower courts have struck down three iterations of the travel ban and the case is now under review by the Supreme Court.

a2.immigration.handcuffs.illegal.storyLater in 2017, Trump turned to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, another key piece of immigration policy. Former President Barack Obama instituted DACA to protect people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as minors. In September 2017, Trump moved to end DACA, pushing the burden to Congress to find a permanent solution for the roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants affected by the program.

Earlier this year, however, Congress and the White House failed to strike a deal that would’ve shielded so-called Dreamers and tackled other contentious issues such as border funding. More recently, there was talk of reviving immigration legislation on the Hill, but many lawmakers are reluctant to resurrect such a politically charged issue ahead of the midterms elections. So for now, DACA, like the travel ban, is winding its way through the court system.

Trump has also ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for over 300,000 Salvadorans, Hondurans, Haitians and others who will eventually have to pack up and return home.

In addition, he has called for tripling the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to beef up the workforce and crack down on illegal immigration, moving away from the narrower focus under the Obama administration that prioritized the pursuit of high-threat criminals given the agency’s limited resources. So far, though, Congress has not provided the funding for the extra ICE agents.

But the hardest note that Trump hit during his campaign was the wall along the border with Mexico. He claimed he would build a “big, beautiful” wall along the entire 2,000-mile boundary, a feat that would cost billions of dollars. But Congress has balked at the price tag — as has Mexico, which has no intentions of paying for the wall, despite Trump’s repeated pronouncements that it would.

Trump is “making his mark on immigration, but not getting the big victories he wanted,” wrote Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who is now the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program, in an email.

Trump’s actions show he is aggressively pursuing his immigration policies, with the goal of decreasing total immigration, and on that front, he has notched up several notable successes.

The definition of “success,” of course, depends on one’s viewpoint. In terms of numbers alone, refugee admissions are down, arrests of illegal immigrants are up and illegal border crossings dropped last year (although they’ve ticked back up this year). Trump has also endorsed cutting legal immigration by half by reducing the number of green cards issued annually from 1 million to 500,000 as part of a broader effort to limit the number of extended relatives able to come to the U.S. in favor of immigrants with certain job skills.

On the whole, immigration, both legal and illegal, is down, although this is due to a variety of factors, some of which pre-date Trump, such as the 2008 economic recession.

While Trump appears to be making his base happy by sticking to his immigration pledges, the president himself reportedly railed against his secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, for failing to secure the border.

Trump’s immigration agenda has been hindered by various forces, including a huge backlog in immigration courts and Congress and the courts stepping in to check some of his policies.

And to Trump’s critics who decry his attacks on immigrants as wrong-headed, his “successes” constitute a failure because they hurt America’s economic competitiveness and its global standing as a nation built on the backs of immigrants.


Here’s a look at five areas where the president is leaving his mark, for better or worse.

Restricting Refugees

The Refugee Act of 1980 established the program to help refugees come to the U.S. and achieve economic self-sufficiency here. Every year since the start of the program, the president sets the annual limit on refugee admissions, supposedly with consultation from Congress.

Historically, there was a sharp increase in refugee admissions to the U.S. in 1980 to more than 200,000, compared to the 20,000 admissions in the late 1970s, according to the State Department. The admissions rate has declined steeply since the 1980 high and has varied over the years since. The rates under the Obama administration were on the low end, with a relative high of more than 80,000 at the tail end of his presidency.

The actual number of refugees admitted can be lower than the cap set by the president, which represents the maximum limit of refugees allowed that year. In fiscal 2017, the Obama administration set the cap at 110,000. New into office, the Trump administration cut the 2017 cap to 50,000. For fiscal 2018, Trump set a slightly lower cap of 45,000.

But if current trends continue this year, refugee admissions are poised to hit the lowest ceiling in the program’s history. Halfway through this fiscal year, just over 10,000 refugees have been admitted, making it likely that only about 20,000 refugees will be admitted in fiscal 2018, far short of the 45,000 max.

Trump has repeatedly sought to restrict refugee admissions, first through the January 2017 suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days and later through an executive order that banned refugees from 11 countries. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resumed refugee processing but instituted “extreme vetting” that has slowed admissions to a crawl. White House officials say the vetting procedures are necessary to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the country, particularly from high-risk countries. Critics say refugees already undergo multiple layers of extensive vetting by agencies such as the FBI and DHS — and that refugees have not been implicated in major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

The White House has also closed over 20 refugee resettlement offices in the U.S. and is considering shifting the refugee portfolio — along with its $3.4 billion budget — from the State Department to USAID in an effort to streamline relief efforts.

Proponents of stricter immigration policy support the new restrictions. “I’m for it for a variety of reasons,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Just in a practical sense, they’re reassessing the way they do refugee vetting, but also the reduction in numbers enables them to reorient staff toward working down the asylum backlog. These are related things. There’s no reason refugees brought here should get preference over people applying for asylum because it’s essentially the same status.”

The cost of resettling a refugee in the U.S. is practically 12 times higher than the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) estimate, said Krikorian. He suggests that funds would do the most good directed toward helping refugees in countries of first asylum, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are burdened with refugees from Syria’s civil war. Since 2011, more than 5.6 million people have fled Syria, according to UNHCR.

But critics say that puts an unfair onus on nations already buckling under the weight of the refugee influx. It also sends the wrong message at a time when a record 65 million people around the world are displaced because of war, famine and other disasters.

“War, persecution, and terrorism will continue to drive people from their homes. It is in our national security interest to be equipped to manage and respond to international migration flows; not pretend they do not exist,” said a May 1 letter written by several Democratic senators to Trump denouncing his decision to appoint Andrew Veprek, a noted refugee skeptic, as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The letter said slashing resettlement programs will damage relations with countries such as Kenya and Jordan, where U.S. refugee policy is often used as diplomatic leverage to address other issues such as peace settlements.

“A lack of understanding of how to utilize resettlement as a tool to advance U.S. foreign policy interests will undo decades of progress on refugee protections, shake critical alliances, and ultimately lead to further abdication of U.S. leadership,” the senators wrote.

Aid groups say that leadership is more important than ever. For decades we’ve put pressure on countries to have a greater human rights track record,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE and acting general counsel at DHS who is now at the firm Frontier Solutions. “When we take an anti-migration stance, limit refugees, it destroys our moral authority when using it internationally for other countries to respect human rights.”

a2.immigration.ramirez.oath.storyThe Travel Ban

The first travel ban issued in January 2017 affected foreign nationals seeking entry to the U.S. from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, issuing a 90-day visa suspension for them.

After the confusion and controversy that the initial ban sparked, an updated version was rolled out in March 2017 that kept the 90-day visa suspension but took Iraq — a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State — off the list.

Now in its third iteration, the latest travel ban suspends entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and Somalia. These countries were singled out because of “inadequate” protocols for identity management and information-sharing and other national security-related issues. (Chad was later removed from the list.)

Arguments for and against the ban essentially come down to security versus discrimination (also see “Foreigners Wonder How Extreme Trump’s Extreme Vetting Will Be” in the August 2017 issue). Critics say the ban disproportionately targets Muslims and, despite some cosmetic changes, essentially fulfills Trump’s campaign promise to slap a ban on all Muslims coming to the U.S.

Supporters say the ban is necessary to beef up security screenings for travelers with potential terrorist ties, especially because commercial flights remain a prime target (although the ban notably excluded high-risk nations such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia).

There has already been a lengthy legal battle challenging the ban. In December 2017, the Supreme Court allowed implementation of the third version of the travel ban until it can make a final ruling. In April 2018, the court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the latest travel ban on the basis that it overreaches presidential authority and violates the Constitution.

The arguments seemed to tilt in Trump’s favor, with Chief Justice John Roberts suggesting that the president has the authority to enact executive orders based on classified security intelligence to which he is privy. Justices also noted that many other Muslim-majority nations are not included in the ban, and they questioned whether campaign rhetoric — such as Trump’s denouncements of Muslims — can be used against a candidate once in office.

And given that the majority of Supreme Court justices are conservative, the court seems likely to lean in favor of upholding the travel ban. A final decision is expected late June.


DACA Delays

Trump has expressed sympathy for those affected by DACA, but his administration has not done much to help them. Trump wants to end the program, and he passed the buck to Congress to create a permanent solution to replace DACA, a stopgap program that gives Dreamers a chance to register for renewable two-year work permits but does not offer a pathway to legal status.

Roughly 700,000 Dreamers have registered under the program (a total of 1.8 million people are estimated to have been brought to the country illegally as children). The name Dreamers comes from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in 2001 that has repeatedly failed to pass.

Trump tried to make a deal with Congress on DACA that was contingent on getting the wall along the Mexico border built. It’s possible Trump believed he could get Congress to support the wall if he used DACA as a bargaining chip, but it’s also possible Trump knew he was never going to get congressional backing for the wall, so he punted DACA to Congress to put the blame on lawmakers for not passing a permanent solution.

And that’s precisely what happened. Despite two brief federal shutdowns and weeks of negotiations, Republicans and Democrats in Congress failed to produce a compromise to save the Dreamers. Some blame the deep ideological rifts not only between both parties but within the GOP itself. Others point the finger at Trump, accusing him of scuttling a bipartisan Senate plan that would’ve protected 1.8 million undocumented Dreamers from deportation while providing $25 billion for border security. While the deal satisfied two of Trump’s top demands, it fell short on curbing family chain migration and the diversity visa lottery, both of which Republicans want to phase out in favor of a more limited, merit-based immigration system.

Even some Republicans in Congress thought the administration was deliberately putting up obstacles. Some called out presidential advisor and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller as the culprit who supposedly sabotaged the Senate bill because he didn’t want any kind of deal.

Like the travel ban, DACA has been winding it way through the court system, leaving Dreamers in legal limbo. The Trump administration wanted to end DACA on the grounds that it is “unlawful,” but a D.C. Federal Court ruled that the administration’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” because it did not provide sufficient basis for the illegality of the program. The ruling came late April 2018, with the judge staying the decision for 90 days to give DHS time to better explain its reasoning. If the department is not able to do so, then it will have to continue the program, allowing both renewals and new applications. At the moment, DHS is accepting only renewal requests.

The legal back and forth continues most recently with Texas, joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia, coming forward with a lawsuit alleging that DACA is unconstitutional.

Sandweg, one of the original architects of DACA, argues that the program’s legality was scrutinized heavily in the Obama administration, with the conclusion that “there was little to no doubt that DACA was well within the president’s authority.”

He emphasized that DACA “wasn’t a permanent fix,” but it offered some protection for those brought illegally to the U.S. as minors who have no criminal background and satisfy other requirements, including educational ones.

Ending DACA would pull the rug out beneath these people. “Suddenly they’re at risk of getting deported, but more immediately, more importantly, you lose a job. No employer is going to want someone who can’t work legally in the U.S. They’re going to lose their driver’s license. It’s just cruel,” he believes.

a2.immigration.children.syria.storyA CBS News poll earlier this year showed that 87 percent of Americans favor DACA. There is also strong bipartisan support for DACA in Congress, yet comprehensive immigration reform remains elusive.

Ending TPS

Trump has ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for roughly 60,000 Haitians, nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, 2,500 Nicaraguans, 9,000 Nepalis and, most recently, over 50,000 Hondurans. The termination means that these immigrants, some of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, have up to 20 months to leave or face deportation.

TPS protection is given to migrants if they come from countries with ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, epidemic or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. The administration stresses that TPS was meant to be just that — temporary — and that the original conditions that forced migrants to come to the U.S. have long since been addressed.

For instance, tens of thousands of Hondurans were granted TPS in 1999 after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch, the aftereffects of which have long since subsided.

But critics of the decision say conditions in many of these countries remain dire. Honduras is plagued by gang violence, for example, while Haiti is still wracked by poverty years after the 2010 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people.

“We understand that the administration — rather than looking at the actual conditions — was trying to make a political statement by ending TPS. This decision was not based on reality,” Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor told us in a March 2018 cover profile.

He added: “There are specific reasons under the law why TPS was granted to a country like Haiti. Most of these folks do not constitute a national security threat to the United States. Those who are here are contributing to the U.S. economy, they send millions of dollars every year to Haiti and they’re not a burden to the Haitian economy.”

That’s why immigration advocates say ending TPS is a cruel decision that will uproot hundreds of thousands of law-abiding immigrants who have established lives in the U.S., forcing them back to countries that are ill-equipped to take them. That’s also why many TPS recipients may refuse to leave and choose to stay here in the shadows, adding to the estimated 11 million people already living in the U.S. illegally.

Immigration Enforcement

It’s very unlikely Trump will ever get the border wall he envisioned, but he’s been able to erect barriers in other ways.

A January 2017 executive order ordered 10,000 additional ICE agents for immigration law enforcement, roughly tripling the number of agents. Trump also wants 5,000 more Border Patrol agents. But so far, Congress has refused to fund the president’s hiring surge. Despite the lack of funding, ICE and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency are looking to private contractors to hire additional staff.

In fiscal 2017, under Trump, administrative arrests increased 42 percent and deportations jumped by 37 percent, according to ICE. At the end of last year, DHS noted that the number of people caught trying to sneak over the border from Mexico plummeted to the lowest level in 46 years. The drop in apprehensions began shortly after Trump’s election, perhaps a sign that his tough rhetoric was already dissuading immigrants from making the trek. But this year, border crossings have begun climbing back up to Obama-era levels.

There are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Given the limited resources to deport this large population, Obama’s strategy was to prioritize going after convicted criminals instead of what could be considered low-threat people such as those eligible for DACA.

Sandweg, who worked under Obama, disagrees with the Trump administration’s catchall strategy that seems to no longer prioritize high-threat criminals but instead spreads ICE’s resources thin by trying to catch anyone in violation of immigration law. High-threat “criminals are hard to find,” so ICE should focus its resources on them, Sandweg said.

But because criminals are harder to find, it’s easier to track down immigrants who are out in the open, which in turn makes it easier for ICE to meet the president’s deportation quotas. So ICE agents have shifted gears to target low-hanging fruit, such as immigrants with minor infractions like traffic stops who have been living in the U.S. for years. But that strategy has also generated blowback and bad press, such as the arrest of a prominent 43-year-old Polish-born doctor in Michigan who came to the U.S. at age 5 but committed minor offenses in his 20s.

White House officials counter that they are simply allowing immigration agents to do their jobs, which has boosted agency morale, and that previous administrations had gone soft on enforcement.

“The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies and say, ‘You have a mission, there are laws that need to be followed,’” former White House spokesman Sean Spicer said last year.

Regardless, it will be years before the new agents ordered by Trump come on board, not to mention the enormous costs associated with recruiting, training and making physical space for them. This will inevitably balloon the bureaucracy.

“The actual problem is the back-end of the system,” Sandweg pointed out. As arrests increase, the immigration courts get further backlogged. At the end of April 2017, close to 600,000 cases were awaiting decision, an all-time high, according to the data group TRAC.

The backlog is a source of frustration for both immigration advocates and opponents. While most immigrants caught at the border are detained and deported, groups such as minors, families and those seeking asylum go into federal custody. Immigrant advocates point out that individuals applying for legal status typically wait years for hearings. Those favoring stricter immigration controls bemoan the same fact, directing their ire on the policy of “catch and release,” whereby immigrants are detained but often released pending their court date because they cannot be jailed indefinitely.

More recently, though, Attorney General declared a “zero-tolerance” policy whereby parents with children who cross the border illegally will be separated from their children and prosecuted. Those children will join the other minors who arrive alone and are placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn places them with adult sponsors in the U.S. (And contrary to social media-inspired outrage that nearly 1,500 children have gone “missing,” the reality is more nuanced. Health and Human Services has been unable to make contact with these children, in part because their sponsors may intentionally not be responding.)

Congress, in the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill, allowed for 10 new judges to add to the approximately 350 immigration judges in the U.S., but TRAC reports this will be insufficient to handle the massive backlog of cases. Earlier this year, the Justice Department set annual quotas of at least 700 cases per judge to address this problem. DOJ also requested $75 million for fiscal 2018 to hire 75 new immigration judges and support staff.

Adding to the backlog is a new trend along the Mexico border. While arrests are down — the U.S. Border Patrol reports a total of 310,531 arrests in fiscal 2017 at the border, a record low since the Obama and George W. Bush administrations — asylum seekers are up as Central Americans have been coming to the Mexico border to try to escape violence in their native countries. Trump sees the Central American migrants as a threat to national security, mobilizing the National Guard to the southern border to make his point, but he can’t stop them from applying for asylum under U.S. law. As the number of asylum petitions goes up, so too does the backlog clogging the court system.

Gauging Success

Immigration, always a hot-button issue in U.S. politics, has become even more heated under Trump.

“I’d give him a B- because there’s real improvements in the administrative areas where the president has direct authority,” said Krikorian. “ICE has had the handcuffs removed. They’re able to do their jobs. We’re seeing the statutory and regulatory standards get enforced now. There’s a higher bar rather than the deliberate laxity of the previous administration.”


Krikorian thinks the Trump administration has not done such a good job handling relations with Congress, though. “The White House really did a terrible job of working with Congress in trying to get some of their agenda items funded or approved,” said Krikorian.

Repeated attempts over the last decade at comprehensive immigration reform have failed to pass muster in Congress. The ongoing stalemate has allowed politicians of all stripes to avoid debate on thorny issues such as who deserves to stay or come to the United States and who doesn’t. The lines are not black and white for either party.

For instance, Trump, like Democrats, backs protection for Dreamers, at least in theory, but he’s relentlessly pushed to limit other types of immigration. In addition to deporting as many illegal immigrants as possible, he also advocates shrinking the pool of visas for legal immigrants, limiting chain migration for extended family members and nixing the diversity visa lottery in favor of a more merit-based system. The debate over the diversity lottery, in fact, led to Trump’s infamous comment that he doesn’t see the point of taking in people from “shithole” countries like Haiti or African nations.

The uproar that ensued exposed the xenophobic undertones and outright racism that drive the immigration views of some Trump supporters. At the same time, there are legitimate questions and gripes about the role immigrants play in the U.S. economy. Do they take on menial jobs that Americans don’t want or has this claim been exaggerated? Are they filling a much-needed skill gap, such as H-1B visa holders with STEM skills that Americans supposedly lack? Has this foreign talent helped America’s tech sector become the most innovative in the world, or have tech companies abused the H-1B program to bring in cheap labor at the cost of U.S. jobs?

Regardless of how one views these tricky issues, immigration experts agree that the president has moved forward with putting his policies into place.

“There’s no question he has shifted the direction of U.S. immigration policy toward a much harder line,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I think it’s fair to say that pretty much every previous administration — at least going back to the Reagan administration — I think every administration has had roughly the same set of goals, which is to reduce and control illegal immigration and facilitate legal immigration,” he said.

“This administration has a different set of goals. They want to reduce illegal immigration, but they also want to reduce legal immigration. Obviously there’s a lot of disagreement about whether reducing legal immigration is a good idea or not,” Alden said.

Trump was elected in large part because he promised a tough stance on immigration, but his critics say he is undermining what has made America “great” — its ability to attract industrious and smart people from abroad.

“All of this messaging does work,” said Sandweg of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration. “All of this messaging is: You’re not welcome. It works if your goal is to reduce migration.”

He added, “I do think long term, and even near term, it’s going to be harmful to the U.S. economy.”

Many of Trump’s supporters disagree, accusing immigrants of failing to assimilate into American society, draining social services, increasing crime and costing Americans jobs. Proponents say there is no proof that immigrants use federal benefits or commit crime any more than U.S. citizens do. Moreover, they argue that immigrants have given the U.S. a leg up in today’s globalized economy, complementing — not competing with — the U.S. workforce.

For every argument, however, each side is able to cherry-pick studies and statistics that bolster their case. But the immigration divide is about more than numbers. Issues such as separating parents from children, deporting immigrants who have lived in the country for decades and welcoming foreigners who endanger job prospects for struggling Americans strike deeply emotional — and polarizing — chords. Given these obstacles, it’s difficult to see any type of immigration consensus emerging any time soon, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

About the Author

Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.