Opinion | Trump’s Overhaul of Immigration Is Worse Than You Think

It was a kind gesture to some 6,000 Filipinos who, in their youth, had fought with American armed forces in World War II and had been granted U.S. citizenship decades later. In 2016, when the veterans were in their 80s and 90s, the Obama administration agreed to allow some of their relatives in the Philippines to come to the United States before they completed the long wait for formal admission.

Last August, the Trump administration announced it was ending the program.

This gratuitous swipe at a group of old veterans is a measure of how meticulously the Trump administration has pursued the destruction of immigration in America. Through administrative orders, strict enforcement and mere threat, the White House has attacked virtually every aspect of immigration, legal and illegal.

This transformation of the American immigration system has been perhaps the administration’s boldest accomplishment, overseen with single-minded focus by Stephen Miller, a top adviser to President Trump with an affinity for white nationalism.

A report this summer from the Migration Policy Institute outlined over 400 actions on immigration that had been enacted by a sprawling array of federal departments in the Trump era.

The effects are clear. Between 2016 and 2019, annual net immigration into the United States fell by almost half, to about 600,000 people per year — a level not seen since the 1980s — according to an analysis by William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. (Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, that number has certainly decreased even more.)

The 2016-19 drop “is clearly a result of Trump’s restrictive immigration measures,” Mr. Frey told the editorial board, “including immigrant bans from selected countries, greater limits on refugees, and generating fear among other potential immigrant groups over this administration’s unwelcoming policies.”

Along with more obscure actions, like ending that Filipino veterans program, the administration has been methodical in ensuring that its most widely criticized efforts succeed.

In the spring of 2018, as thousands of Central American families crossed the southern U.S. border to seek asylum, the Justice Department ordered the arrest of anyone entering the country without authorization. This forced the separation of hundreds of families, even the removal of infants from nursing mothers.

To scare people from bringing their families over the border, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, said, “We need to take away children.” It made no difference how young they were.

National and international outrage over this cruelty led the administration to rescind that family separation policy. So it changed tack, shutting out asylum seekers through minute attention to administrative detail, bare knuckle diplomacy and ignoring legality.

Border control officials said they would accept asylum applications only from people who arrived at approved border crossings, even though the law says anyone can apply for asylum once in the United States. At those crossings, asylum seekers were forced to wait for days, even weeks, in long lines just for a chance to approach the border to ask for protection. The White House packed the immigration appeals board with Trump appointees, with predictable results: Rejections increased.

Mr. Trump also used the threat of tariffs to get Mexico to crack down on undocumented Central American immigrants and to allow frustrated asylum seekers to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their cases meandered through U.S. immigration courts.

After Mr. Trump suspended aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in March, Guatemala and Honduras agreed to accept asylum seekers who had passed through those countries on their way north, so they could either apply for asylum there or go home. (A federal appeals court blocked this arrangement, but that’s effectively moot during the pandemic, since the administration has all but shut down the border under a 1944 public health law.)

The scope of the administration’s actions has been far broader than Mr. Trump implied it would be when he campaigned. He promised to bar “rapists” from Mexico, create “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and save America from homicidal undocumented immigrants.

Once in office, it was not just criminals and terrorists who drew his attention. It was also people seeking protection from the horrors of their home countries, undocumented immigrants trying to support their families and foreigners striving for a better life in the United States.

Mr. Trump eventually achieved a version of his Muslim ban when the Supreme Court approved of severe restrictions on entry for residents of 13 countries, the majority of them with mostly Muslim populations. While the White House said one reason the ban was needed was lax security in those countries, it also has drastically scaled back the refugee program, which involves stringent vetting by American and United Nations officials. In Barack Obama’s last year as president, the ceiling for refugee admissions was 110,000. For the current fiscal year, it’s 15,000. Mr. Trump has made these desperate people campaign punching bags. “Are you having a good time with your refugees?” he said with smirk to a roaring crowd in Minnesota recently. (In fact, when a poll asked Minnesotans whether they approved of having refugees resettled in their community, 59 percent said yes, and 29 percent said no.)

Despite Mr. Trump’s promises to protect Americans from killer immigrants, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is now more than twice as likely to pick up immigrants with no criminal record beyond immigration violations, compared with the number before he took office. After being labeled the “deporter in chief,” Mr. Obama ordered ICE to concentrate enforcement on unauthorized immigrants who had committed crimes. Within weeks of his own inauguration, Mr. Trump eliminated any deportation priorities and made all undocumented immigrants fair game for ICE. With many cities resisting ICE’s more stringent demands for cooperation, the agency has also found it easier to just pick up anyone with an existing deportation warrant.

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen Beristain, who voted for Mr. Trump, said when her husband, Roberto, owner of a restaurant in Granger, Ind., was ordered to be deported to Mexico in March 2017 after 20 years in the United States. But, she said, when “you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”

Not anymore.

While Mr. Trump promised a crackdown on illegal immigration during his presidency, he has also eagerly pursued reductions in authorized immigration.

The administration had threatened to furlough 70 percent of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees, blaming the pandemic, but some of those employees said the real problem was restrictive policies and delays in visa applications that have sharply reduced revenue from the processing fees that fund the agency. At the same time, applications for permanent residency have declined since the administration announced it would adopt a rule that would prevent those considered likely to receive public benefits from becoming permanent residents. Among recent green-card recipients, 69 percent had at least one of the characteristics that would be weighed, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of homeland security, recently announced that the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers would be cut by one-third because of tighter criteria for who can get them. Critics said this would make American companies shift more work abroad.

Mr. Trump also has ended “temporary protected status” for 400,000 people from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan and elsewhere who have legally lived and worked in the United States for decades after being provided a haven from war or natural disaster.

If Democrats were to take control of Congress and the White House next year, it would be fairly simple to undo some of the damage Mr. Trump has done to the nation’s immigration system. The protections that Mr. Trump overturned for the Dreamers — the thousands of people who were brought to the United States without authorization when they were young — could be written into law, with public support. The travel ban could be overturned, and more refugees could be admitted. ICE could be directed to once again concentrate on deporting criminals. Resources could be shifted to smarter border security measures that don’t rely on a physical wall.

But rolling back other measures will be difficult.

“There’s so much change that has happened in the last four years, there’s no way a new administration could reverse things in four or even eight years,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who was a co-author of the group’s July report.

Beyond that, there could be political challenges to undoing President Trump’s clamps on the border if that would invite new caravans of asylum seekers. Would Democrats reverse the public charge rule and leave themselves open to accusations of coddling newcomers?

After undoing the cruelest and most pointless of the president’s changes to the immigration system, a new administration would need to make difficult decisions about controlling the border, assessing the role that skills and family ties should play in admitting immigrants, enforcing employment laws for unauthorized immigrants and creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of those workers and their families.

But rejecting, by law and action, the Trump administration’s racism, cruelty and xenophobia would reaffirm that America is a nation of immigrants who help revitalize the country — an ideal that most Americans support.

With a pandemic and an economic crisis to address, immigration may not seem like a priority. Yet if it is not addressed, the immigration system Mr. Trump has erected may be in operation for years to come.

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