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Trump's attacks on the legal immigration system explained

News & Commentary  |  By Peniel Ibe, Nov 9, 2018

Iowans rally against anti-immigrant bill. 

Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg

The Trump administration has been making 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. 

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 but the administration is not even on track to resettle that number - it will resettle perhaps 20,000 this year - thus undermining the progress of a vital humanitarian program. In September 2018, the administration indicated that it would reduce the cap further to just 30,000 for 2019 – the lowest since the program’s creation in 1980.

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.  

Undermining asylum: The Trump administration has said it is criminally prosecuting asylum seekers who cross the border unlawfully between checkpoints, but border patrol agents are reportedly turning asylum seekers away at border check points - a violation of U.S. and international law. Together these policies make it more difficult to apply for asylum at a port of entry. 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. Sessions  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. 

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.

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.

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

Pushing more people into deportation proceedings:  New guidance is designed to make it easier for USCIS – which is not an enforcement agency - to funnel people it denies into deportation proceedings by issuing a “Notice to Appear” or 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: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proposed a regulation that would punish immigrants who use basic public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. If adopted, DHS could deem more immigrants likely to become a “public charge” - dependent on the government at any point in their lives – and reject their petitions for green cards. This could force families to choose between their well-being and staying together – and it will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable in our society including children, pregnant women, older adults, and families living paycheck to paycheck. 

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 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.

Going after naturalized citizens: A new denaturalization task force is also working to strip citizenship from naturalized American citizens. While there are few legal grounds for denaturalization, the administration is planning to refer 1,600 cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. Even if the denaturalization task force doesn’t bring many cases, it will have succeeded at signaling to all naturalized citizens and permanent residents a sense of insecurity and uncertainty.

What changes has the Trump administration pushed for in Congress?

The president alone cannot rewrite immigration statutes but the administration has pushed Congress to cut immigration dramatically.

Curtailing family immigration: Trump has complained about our family-based immigration system, often lying about who is eligible and how it works. Reuniting families through the immigration system is humane and contributes to stability, prosperity, and stronger communities. Legislation the Trump administration has supported would cut legal immigration in half by eliminating many categories of family immigration – in particular, this would reduce the immigration of people of color to the U.S. 

Ending diversity: Trump has repeatedly targeted the Diversity Visa Program, calling for its end. This program allows people from countries with low immigration rates to enter a lottery to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. Terminating the program would reduce the number of African immigrants to the U.S.  

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. Abolish ICE: ICE has a long history of separating families, violating human rights, and terrorizing our communities. It’s time to stop its abuses once and for all. Click here to sign the petition to abolish ICE.

2. 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.

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 AFSC’s Media Uncovered blog 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 resist racism and bigotry. Here are posters calling to abolish ICE and keep families together.

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

About the Author

Peniel is the policy fellow at AFSC. She is interested in international development, humanitarian crisis management and public policy. She is an immigrant from Nigeria who recently relocated to the United States and is advocating for the rights of others like her.