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Trump's attacks on the legal immigration system explained

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

The Trump administration continues to make changes both small and drastic to U.S. immigration policies. While Trump’s cruel policies at the border and his ramping up of deportations and ICE raids have garnered the most attention and outrage, his other efforts to transform legal immigration have been no less radical. As administration officials and conservative commentators have said, deportations alone may not halt the demographic changes taking place in the country–so the administration is aggressively reshaping the legal immigration system. 

TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to cut funding for ICE and Border Patrol! 

What's more, the Trump administration has bypassed Congress’s lawmaking authority and used its executive powers to rewrite immigration policy–with little or no pushback from Congress itself.  

Taken together, these policies support a white nationalist agenda. By keeping more people out, deporting people who are here, and creating an atmosphere of nativism and fear that affects everybody, Trump is attempting to dramatically reduce immigration to the United States, particularly of people of color.

Most people don’t support the Trump agenda– the majority of the public thinks that immigration is a good thing and shouldn’t be decreased. That’s why it’s important to understand and oppose the changes underway. Here is a running list of changes and planned changes to the legal immigration system. 


What changes has the Trump administration already implemented?

Reducing refugee admissions: President Trump initially suspended the refugee admissions program and subsequently reduced the maximum number of refugees that can be admitted into the United States from the previous ceiling of 110,000 to a mere 50,000 for 2017. In 2018, the administration reduced the number to 45,000 and for 2020, it intends to resettle only 18,000–thus undermining the progress of a vital humanitarian program. The administration also issued an executive order that permits state and local officials to block resettlement in their cities and states. Advocates have filed a lawsuit to challenge this executive order.  

Slowing lawful immigration processes: What used to be straightforward application processes–like applying for a green card (permanent residency) and citizenship–have been dramatically slowed down and halted.  The backlog of pending green card applications had increased by more than 35 percent by the end of 2017. 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 to naturalize as citizens or become lawful residents vulnerable and in a state of limbo. 

A new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) policy allows officers to outright deny 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. 

Reducing lawful immigration: The president also issued an excutive order requiring immigrants to prove they can obtain health insurance before they are issued a visa. A judge has granted a preliminary injunction to advocates that filed a lawsuit. The order will not be implemented while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.

Pushing more people into deportation proceedings: There is now new guidance that makes it easier for USCIS–which is not an enforcement agency–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 will discourage applications for life-saving visas to protect people who are survivors of trafficking and domestic violence. Another memo issued makes it easier for USCIS to deny people’s applications. These changes will have a chilling effect on all immigrants.

Punishing immigrants with legal status and their families: In the fall of 2019, courts issued a nationwide injunction halting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s ability to deny green cards to immigrants who use basic public benefits, like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid–a rule change that had been introduced by the Trump administration. If it had been allowed to take effect, the rule would have broadened the criteria for which immigrants could be denied green cards because they were deemed "a public charge"–dependent on the government at any point in their lives. Advocates decried the disproportionate impact the policy change would have on the most vulnerable in our society–forcing families to choose between their well-being and staying together. 

Undermining asylum:  In July, DHS announced that it would deny asylum to almost anyone entering the United States at the southern border if they did not first apply for asylum in Mexico or another third country – a rule that would bar an overwhelming number of asylum seekers from seeking refuge. Fortunately, this "third-country asylum ban" has been stopped from going into effect for now, since a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that overruled a previous circuit court judge's decision that allowed it go forward. 

Earlier in Trump's administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned precedent by making it almost impossible for people fleeing domestic and gang violence to find haven in the U.S. He also worked to limit the due process of people in immigration proceedings and limiting immigration judges’ and asylum officers’ discretion and independence. Trump also issued an asylum ban that would block people who enter the U.S. between ports of entry from seeking asylum (although a federal judge recently suspended the ban as a lawsuit over the administration's new rule makes its way through the courts). 

The Trump administration has also begun implementing a policy that forces Central Americans seeking asylum to return to Mexico – for an indefinite amount of time – while their claims are processed. This policy – which is a clear violation of both U.S. and international law – puts asylum seekers in danger and goes directly against Congress’ intent to protect vulnerable people from persecution. Read more about Trump's efforts to dismantle the U.S. asylum system.

Banning people from Muslim countries:  The third version of Trump’s nakedly discriminatory Muslim ban has been okayed by the Supreme Court, barring entry for almost everybody from several Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Iran, Libya, Chad, Somalia, and Syria. The Trump administration’s waiver process has been shown to be largely a sham. The ban echoes some of the worst immigration policies in history.

Using the immigration courts to increase deportations: The Trump administration is reopening 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 deportation, the Justice Department has established a case quota requirement for immigration judges. This will erode the due process rights of immigrants by forcing judges to rush through cases to attain favorable reviews from their supervisors. The former attorney general has also restricted immigration judges’ ability to terminate deportation proceedings against immigrants except in very narrow circumstances. 

The Trump administration announced in July 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 in October, a federal court blocked the policy, asking the government to stop implementation while the lawsuit proceeds. 

Creating a more xenophobic and less welcoming country: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) removed language celebrating the United States as “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. And the president has likened immigrants to “animals” and derided people from “sh**hole  countries.” These shifts help create an atmosphere of fear.

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.


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

Making more people deportable: 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) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) 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. 

Creating obstacles for workers and their families: The administration is increasingly denying and delaying more foreign-skilled worker requests. 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. The administration has 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 have a negative impact on the industries that use the H-1B visa program.

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, which greatly impacts refugee applications, asylum seekers, and other immigration-related matters, such as international adoptions and family reunifications.

Increasing the cost of immigration: The president’s 2020 budget proposal includeds an “immigration services surcharge,” an estimated 10% fee increase to immigration form filing fees. In November 2019, USCIS officially published its plans to raise fees to apply for naturalization and vital immigration benefits while slashing the availability of fee waivers. It’s another addition to the series of financial burdens designed to make it hard for low-income people to qualify for legal immigration status. 


What can we do to resist Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda?

These attacks on immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and others serve an aggressive white nationalist agenda. Trump is targeting everyone: naturalized, legal, native-born, and undocumented alike. And none of us are safe while any of us are under threat. Here are some steps you can take to resist Trump’s immigration agenda.

1. Defund hate: Tell Congress that we are a better nation when we accept with open arms those fleeing violence and poverty. Congress has the power to significantly cut the budgets of ICE and the Border Patrol–tell them to defund hate.

2. Tell Congress to protect vital programs like TPS, DED, and DACA: Terminating TPS, DED, and DACA is a cruel attack on our immigrant communities. Urge elected officials to create a permanent solution to keep their families and communities together.

3. Create sanctuary: Create safe, inclusive spaces for all people by creating sanctuary everywhere. Here are resources to help you and your community create safety in congregations, schools, and cities.

4. Use good messaging: Talk about immigration in positive productive ways. How we talk about social justice issues matters. Here are some tips to help you talk about immigration to build support for more humane policies. And check out this AFSC resource for more research-based tips on how to talk about issues to create social change.

5. Display love: Make your community more welcoming by printing and displaying AFSC posters–and use them at the next rally or protest you attend. Here are posters to show solidarity for immigrant rights and justice. 

This post was initially published August 16, 2018 and has been updated.

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.