In four years, President Donald Trump transformed the country’s immigration system.
And he didn’t need Congress to do it.
Trump signed more than 400 executive orders, effectively changing every aspect of the nation’s immigration system. Among other things, those orders sharply reduced humanitarian protection, blocked immigrants from seeking political asylum, banned immigrants from traveling to the U.S. from some Muslim countries, limited legal immigration and increased enforcement along the southern border.
Since Congress will likely remain gridlocked on immigration, advocates are now concentrating their energies on lobbying President-elect Joe Biden to overturn Trump’s executive orders.
“Will immigration actually be their key priority? We know it’s not going to be,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, during a briefing on Monday. “If you watched the speeches on Saturday, they mentioned a lot of issues but they didn’t mention immigration.”
“During the Trump administration, immigration was the top policy priority. They poured everything they had into enacting their agenda,” Pierce added.
Advocates said the end of the election doesn’t mean they will slow down; it just means they are shifting gears.
“Trump, with the help of Stephen Miller, had a systematic plan and that’s where these executive orders fell into place. They were part of that systematic plan to target immigrant communities, generally, but especially low-income Black and brown immigrants,” said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center. “What the Biden administration can do in the first 100 days would be reverse Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders.”
On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from mostly Muslim countries. The order was quickly challenged in court. The administration introduced another two versions of the order, ultimately bringing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled to keep it.
Omar Awadh, an asylum seeker from Yemen, said he hasn’t been able to see his family because of the Muslim ban. Awadh arrived in the U.S. when he was 17 years old for an education exchange program. He was supposed to be here for a year, but when he was getting ready to go back a war broke out back home. His father, who survived two assassination attempts, told him to stay in the U.S. because Yemen was dangerous. Awadh can’t travel because his asylum claim is still pending. His family fled to the Netherlands, and in 2018, Awadh’s mother tried to visit him.
“I haven’t seen my family since I left home,” said Awardh, 25. “My mom tried to visit me and applied for a visa. But they told her straight up just because she’s a Yemeni national she cannot get a visa to come and visit. It’s very impactful to me because I haven’t seen my mom since I left over eight years ago.”
Trump dismantled the political asylum system. He’s signed multiple executive actions to limit which immigrants are allowed to ask for asylum. The Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy by separating children from their parents who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum in May and June 2018. Later, Trump implemented new restrictions by implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the remain in Mexico policy. More than 56,000 asylum seekers were sent back to Mexico last year to wait their turn to seek asylum.
“What we need to demand to see is to take immediate action at ending MPP, so that people have an opportunity to seek asylum in the way the law allows it,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, associate director of Alianza Americas, a national group that advocates for immigrants’ rights.
At least 1,300 asylum seekers are living in a makeshift camp in Matamoros, Mexico, right next to the bridge connecting that city to Brownsville, Texas. For more than a year, these migrants — many of whom are from Central America and Cuba — are homeless and waiting for their asylum cases to be heard in immigration court while living in a city the state department warned Americans not to visit because it’s too dangerous.
Ruiz-Velasco organized multiple trips to Matamoros last year after MPP was implemented.
“People died because of this policy and were harmed, and it’s just unconscionable,” Ruiz-Velasco said. “It seems to me that this should be one of the first things that the incoming administration addresses so that they can at least stop the harm.”
Many of the migrants living in the makeshift camp said they’ve been victims of crime, witnessed violence and even seen several dead bodies floating down the Rio Grande. Migrants use that river, which runs alongside the camp, to bathe and wash clothes.
And now the government says they can’t find the parents of 545 children separated from their parents at the border, NPR reported.
These policies sharply reduced asylum claims at the southern border. This year, as of June, there were only 622 initial asylum screenings compared to 10,847 in June 2019, according to a policy analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization.Young undocumented immigrants with temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have spent the last four years wondering if they will be deported.
“The past four years have been filled with more waiting, monitoring numerous lawsuits, and deciding the best route for my life,” DACA recipient Dulce Dominguez wrote.
In 2017, Trump rescinded the Obama-era executive policy. The legal challenges started soon thereafter and ended when the U.S. Supreme Court this past summer ordered the Trump administration to reinstate DACA.
But a month later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) severely limited DACA by denying all first-time applications and requiring recipients to reapply each year instead of every two years.
The Trump administration also curbed immigration by limiting humanitarian visas. For example, the number of refugees decreased by 74% in just two years, reaching its lowest level since the program started. In 2016, about 85,000 refugees were admitted into the country. By 2018, that number had decreased to less than 22,500. And by 2020, the administration lowered the maximum number of refugees that would be admitted per year to only 18,000.
Immigration advocates challenged the Trump administration’s attempts to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for seven countries, a move that would have affected more than 300,000 immigrants. TPS is available to immigrants from certain countries who are unable to return to their countries because of violence or a natural disaster.
A federal judge in California issued the first injunction in October 2018. That judge told DHS not to end TPS for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. Similar rulings were issued in other federal courts.
Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), said it is going to take a lot of work to undo the harm the Trump administration caused to immigrant communities.
ICIRR sued the Trump administration over it’s expanded definition of the public charge rule, which would deny green cards to immigrants who use or may use food stamps and other government assistance in the future. A federal judge in Chicago blocked implementation of the expanded rule.
“This administration has done endless amounts of harm and damage to immigrant families, to immigrant communities and to our immigration system and to the rule of law within immigration,” Tsao said. “We’re glad to see this administration leave.”
Tsao said Biden doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to immigration, but he said advocates are ready to hold the president-elect accountable and to remind him that many immigrants showed up to the polls and voted for him. And immigrants who couldn’t vote did a lot of organizing to help get Trump out of office.
“We also understand that any new administration is not going to necessarily do the right thing on its own,” Tsao said.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.