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Trump's attacks on the legal immigration system explained

Iowans rally against anti-immigrant bill.  Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

While the world continues to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump announced on April 20 that he would sign an executive order to suspend immigration to the United States. 

During the ban, nearly all parents and adult children of U.S. citizens, spouses, and children of green card holders, and applicants for most employment-based visas will not be able to obtain visas to immigrate to the U.S. The ban also temporarily shuts down the Diversity Visa Program, a frequent target of the Trump administration. 

More details on how the order will be implemented continue to emerge. What’s clear is that the administration is exploiting this public health emergency to advance its racist, anti-immigrant policy agenda. 

Tell Congress: Say NO to Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order!

It's important to note that prior to the announcement, the administration had already largely cut off immigration to the United States as part of its pandemic response. U.S. Citizenship and Information Services (USCIS), which is charged with processing applications for immigration, naturalization, and citizenship,is already closed; refugee resettlement has been on hold; and citizenship ceremonies have been postponed till further notice.  

What's more, this executive order follows a series of attacks on legal immigration since the start of this administration, which include imposing a travel ban from African and Muslim majority countries as well as making it nearly impossible for people to seek asylum in the U.S. The Trump administration has repeatedly bypassed Congress’s lawmaking authority and used its executive powers to rewrite immigration policy–with little or no pushback from Congress itself.  

By keeping more people out, deporting people who are here, and creating an atmosphere of nativism and fear that affects everybody, Trump is dramatically reducing immigration to the United States, particularly for people of color. Together, these policies support a white nationalist agenda—one that most people in the U.S. don’t support. The majority of the public thinks that immigration is a good thing and should not be decreased. That’s why it’s important to understand and oppose the changes underway. 

For context on Trump’s efforts to ban immigration today, here is a running list of the attacks on the legal immigration system throughout his administration. 

What changes has the administration implemented? 

Undermining asylum: The Trump administration has repeatedly imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers, making it nearly impossible for many people to claim protection in the United States. These restrictions include preventing migrants from applying for asylum if they traveled through another country before reaching the U.S. if they didn’t apply in the previous country. The administration has also exported its asylum provision obligations to ill-equipped countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

In January 2019, the Trump administration began implementing its “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces Central Americans seeking asylum to return to Mexico–for an indefinite amount of time–while their claims are processed. Learn more.

Banning people from majority Muslim countries: The third version of Trump’s racist Muslim ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, barring entry for almost everybody from several Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Iran, Libya, Chad, Somalia, and Syria. 

In January 2020, the administration expanded its Muslim ban to target even more immigrants of color. The expanded ban targets mostly African countries—including Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Eritrea—as well as Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. Learn more.

Reducing refugee admissions: Soon after taking office, the Trump administration slashed the number of refugees that could be admitted into the U.S. from 110,000 to 50,000. In 2020, the administration intends to resettle only 18,000–thus undermining this vital humanitarian program. 

Attacking the Diversity Visa Program: Trump has repeatedly targeted and called for the end of the Diversity Visa Program, which allows people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates to apply for a visa lottery, ultimately leading to lawful permanent residency. The administration has begun suspending the Diversity Visa program for countries including Tanzania and Sudan and limiting who can apply. 

Imposing a “wealth test” for immigrants with legal status and their families: In the spring of 2020, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to implement its cruel “public charge” immigration policy. The policy essentially punishes immigrants and their families for using certain public benefits, like Medicaid or SNAP (food stamps), and forces them to prove they are wealthy enough to not rely on government assistance in the future. Litigation against this policy is still ongoing, and the implementation of the rule may be permanently halted if the final ruling is unfavorable to the administration.

Targeting pregnant women: The administration now allows the State Department to deny temporary visas to pregnant women or women they believe intend to travel to the U.S. to give birth–a backdoor way of limiting the scope of the 14th amendment. This “pregnancy ban” targets nationals of countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East that are required to obtain visas to visit the U.S. 

Creating obstacles for workers and their families: The administration is increasingly denying and delaying more foreign-skilled worker requests—denials have risen from 6% in 2015 to 32% in early 2019. An increased issuing of “requests for evidence” to challenge the basis of original petitions can add on several months to the application process for individuals. 

Slowing applications for green cards (permanent residency) and citizenship: What used to be straightforward application processes have been dramatically slowed down and halted. By the end of 2017, the backlog of pending green card applications had increased by more than 35%. A new mandated in-person interview for all applicants for employment-based immigration applications has increased processing time and slowed applications to a crawl. These slowdowns leave thousands of people seeking citizenship or permanent residency in limbo. 

In addition, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) now allows officers to deny outright any visa or green card application that is missing evidence or contains an error—without giving applicants a chance to fix it. This could mean people with valid visas who are trying to renew could be placed in deportation proceedings. 

Limiting avenues to access immigration services: The Trump administration is closing all 21 overseas USCIS field offices across 20 countries before the end of the year. This move greatly impacts refugee applications, asylum seekers, and other immigration-related matters, such as international adoptions and family reunifications.

Pushing more people into deportation proceedings: Although USCIS is not an enforcement agency, a 2018 policy change has made it easier for it to funnel people it denies into deportation proceedings by issuing a “Notice to Appear” (NTA). This change will add to the immigration court backlog of cases, divert resources, and push more people into deportation. By issuing NTAs when it denies people's applications, the government is discouraging applications for life-saving visas to protect people who are survivors of trafficking and domestic violence. 

Using immigration courts to increase deportations: The Trump administration has reopened thousands of deportation cases that were previously closed due to their low priority, affecting hundreds of thousands of people with close ties to their communities. To speed up deportations, the Justice Department has established a case quota requirement for immigration judges, eroding the due process rights of immigrants by forcing judges to rush through cases. The administration has also restricted immigration judges’ ability to terminate deportation proceedings against immigrants except in very narrow circumstances. 

Going after naturalized citizens: A new denaturalization task force has begun working to strip citizenship from naturalized American citizens. While there are few legal grounds for denaturalization, the administration has already referred 100 cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. The creation of the task force is causing a sense of insecurity and uncertainty among naturalized citizens and permanent residents.

Creating a more xenophobic and less welcoming country: USCIS removed language celebrating the United States as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. The Justice Department also rescinded guidance documents involving language access issues and federal protections for non-native English speakers. And the president has likened immigrants to “animals” and derided people from “sh**hole  countries.” These shifts help create an atmosphere of fear.

What are other pending and proposed changes to the immigration system?

Attacking DACA and TPS: Trump has worked to strip legal status from more than one million people. By terminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) the administration could leave nearly 700,000 young adults vulnerable to deportation. And by ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for most countries, Trump is ending legal status for hundreds of thousands of people and creating a new population of unauthorized immigrants subject to the threat of deportation. The fate of DACA and TPS lies in the hands of the courts. Read more about TPS and DACA

Increasing the cost of immigration: The Trump administration wants to impose another hurdle for immigrants applying for legal immigration status in the U.S.—hiking fees for people applying for citizenship and, for the first time, charging a fee to those seeking asylum. Immigrants, allies, and members of Congress spoke out against the change. USCIS has yet to say when it will issue a final rule. Read more.

Expediting deportations: In 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would expand its use of “expedited removal” to rapidly deport undocumented immigrants who cannot prove they have lived continuously in the U.S. for two years or more, essentially denying their rights to due process in court. Immigrant rights groups challenged this policy by suing the administration, and a federal court blocked the policy from being implemented while the lawsuit proceeds. 

Creating obstacles for families of immigrant workers: The administration has also signaled that it intends to end work authorization for spouses of H-1B visa holders. This will likely deter people from coming to the United States to work legally and will harm the industries that use the H-1B visa program.

Making it harder for refugees to resettle in the U.S.: The administration also issued an executive order that permits state and local officials to block resettlement in their cities and states. In January 2020, a judge issued a temporary injunction that halts the policy for now.  

Imposing additional obstacles to immigration: The president also issued an executive order requiring immigrants to prove they can obtain health insurance before they are issued a visa. The order cannot yet be implemented as a lawsuit challenging it makes its way through the courts. 

Stand with immigrants and all people seeking refuge in the U.S.! Tell Congress: Say NO to Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order!

About the Author

Peniel Ibe is the policy engagement coordinator at AFSC’s Office of Public Policy and Advocacy. She leads AFSC’s advocacy efforts to coordinate grassroots engagement strategies to impact policy change. She is an immigrant from Nigeria who recently relocated to the United States and is advocating for the rights of others like her.