How Trump Went After Immigrants in 2017
From the travel ban to efforts to deport undocumented immigrants to the plan to limit even legal immigration, here's how a new president transformed the system.
Demonstrators from The Seed Project are arrested after staging a sit-in protest in the US Capitol Visitors Center to demand immigration reform and a renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mohammad Bagher Gerami is dying of brain cancer in a Montreal hospital. No treatment in Canada, where the 73-year-old retired surgeon is a legal permanent resident, has stopped the spread, and he’s lost his ability to speak and move. The good news: California doctors have told his family that they can help him with a special treatment only available there.
But US officials have so far denied Gerami entrance into the country since he is a native of Iran—one of the countries placed under the Trump administration’s travel ban, which bars visitors from several Muslim-majority nations plus Venezuela and North Korea.
“This is our last hope,” Gerami’s daughter Sophia Gerami, an engineer based in Calgary, told me. She shared a letter from Canadian doctors to the US embassy, which urged them to grant him a visa since “his diagnosis is poor in Canada,” and he only has a chance with the experimental treatment in California.
“He’s in a very critical condition—why should they not grant him a visa? It’s humanity,” she said.
Gerami is one of countless foreigners shut out from the US because of their nationality after Donald Trump’s third and latest travel ban was allowed to take effect this month amid continuing legal challenges. The travel ban—created by executive order—is just one of many historic shifts in the US immigration system this year, which is being transformed by a president who seems to think that “putting America first” means converting a nation of immigrants to one increasingly closed to them.
Since Trump was inaugurated in January, he has taken major steps to make it more difficult for new immigrants to enter the country and for those who are already here to remain. Though he has not achieved some of his most high-profile, extreme promises pledged on the campaign trail—such as the construction of a border wall funded by Mexico, the creation of a “deportation force” that would round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and an end to birthright citizenship—the president has reframed immigration as a threat to US security and prosperity. Here are the most important ways Trump has affected immigration in 2017:
Trump Has Moved to Restrict Legal Immigration
Trump is the first president in decades to fight for a major reduction in legal—not just illegal—immigration. Claiming immigrants are taking jobs from US citizens, he has begun a series of administrative changes to make it harder to obtain a visa to enter the US, along with supporting legislation that would drastically lower the cap of visas granted each year.
“The most historic change this administration has made is changing the conversation around legal immigration,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “Previously, it was just such a standard that legal immigration is a net positive and so tied up in our heritage. Before the idea of reducing legal immigration was fringe.”
The April executive order “Buy American, Hire American,” which Trump claimed would result in higher wages and employment rates for US workers, called on the government to increase scrutiny of applications for the H-1B, or skilled worker, visa, of which there are 85,000 granted each year.
Since then, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has issued more requests for evidence from applicants to show they serve a role that couldn’t easily be filled by a citizen. This has caused delays in the approval process, Anastasia Tonello, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me.
“Things are very much in flux,” said Tonello, who noted that USCIS had also issued new guidelines for accepting applications from computer programmers and economists.
Approval rates for H-1B visas have already begun to drop: 86 percent and 82 percent of H-1B applications were approved this October and November, compared with 93 percent and 92 percent for the same months last year, according to data shared by USCIS.
“It is true that we’ve issued more Requests for Evidence recently. This increase reflects our commitment to protecting the integrity of the immigration system,” said USCIS public affairs officer Carolyn Gwathmey. “We understand that RFEs can cause delays, but the added review and additional information gives us the assurance we are approving petitions correctly. Increasing our confidence in who receives benefits is a hallmark of this administration and one of my personal priorities.”
Still, Gwathmey said the annual approval rate for visas remained above 90 percent*, and she noted that USCIS is still considering new measures to further implement Trump’s “Buy American Hire American” order, including a “thorough review of employment based visa programs.”
Trump has just begun his efforts to slash legal immigration, and more drastic cuts appear on the horizon for 2018, Pierce projected. This month Trump called for an end to “chain migration,” or visas based on family ties, and he has already begun the process of rescinding work authorizations to the spouses of H-1B recipients. And he has thrown his support behind legislation that would cut legal immigration in half (that bill, the RAISE Act, seems unlikely to pass).
To Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reductions to legal and illegal immigration, Trump’s proposals are “long overdue.”
“Legal immigration is simply too high and badly run,” he told me. “What worked during our country’s adolescence doesn't work in our maturity.”
Trump Has Made More Undocumented Immigrants Vulnerable to Deportation
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were protected under the Obama administration are now in limbo, or being told to leave, after Trump decided to end two pivotal programs shielding them from deportation.
In September, Trump announced the end of DACA, the Obama-era program providing deportation relief and work permits to young immigrants brought to the US illegally as children. Roughly 800,000 of these immigrants—who often don’t remember a home other than the US—had status under DACA, a protection that has begun to expire.
"Every week since since Trump's termination of DACA, 850 immigrant youth have fallen out of status and lost their protections from deportation, their jobs, their driver's license, their ability to go to college, and peace of mind,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, advocacy director at United We DREAM, a nonprofit created by and for immigrant youth.
Trump also removed temporary protected status from 60,000 Haitians who were granted it after the country’s 2010 earthquake, along with 2,500 Nicaraguans granted it in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch. That means that within months, these residents—some who have lived here for decades—must leave or they will be eligible for deportation.
Trump's Administration Is Prioritizing All Undocumented Immigrants for Deportation
Just five days after his inauguration, Trump sent shockwaves through the immigrant community with an executive order making all undocumented residents priorities for deportation. The Obama administration, by contrast, had focused its efforts on serious criminals and recent border crossers.
“Interior enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws is critically important to the national security and public safety of the United States,” Trump’s executive order explained. “Many aliens who illegally enter the United States and those who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas present a significant threat to national security and public safety.”
Within weeks, a wave of raids proved Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents would indeed pick up any undocumented immigrant in their wake. Out of ICE’s 110,568 arrests in fiscal year 2017, nearly one-third—31,888 detainees—had no criminal convictions, according to Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of ICE’s year-end removal data. More than 90 percent of the individuals removed from the interior by the Obama administration in fiscal year 2016 had been convicted of what the administration deemed “serious crimes.”
“We saw a lot of really sympathetic cases of deportations that shouldn't have taken place,” Stephen Legomsky, former chief counsel of USCIS under the Obama administration, told me of enforcement in 2017. “The Obama administration really did focus almost all its enforcement efforts on people who posed a real danger in the US or were apprehended at border, whereas the Trump administration has given free rein to ICE agents.”
Immigrant advocates say these deportations have separated families, struck fear throughout the immigrant community, and given ICE agents too much discretion in their enforcement.
But Krikorian said the change was “clearly a positive” development and “simply a restoration of normal immigration enforcement.”
“Under Obama, only the bad guys were targeted. Ordinary lawbreakers were in effect protected from law enforcement,” said Kriokorian. “That’s essentially saying breaking the law shouldn't have consequences.”
Trump Has Slashed Refugee Admissions
Just as the world reached a record high in displaced people since the end of World War II, Trump used his executive power to slash US refugee admissions to their lowest level in the history of the program. Where Obama had set the annual cap at 110,000, Trump slashed that number to 45,000 in a September proposal to Congress.
“The President has made clear that in the admission of refugees for resettlement, the safety and security of the American people is paramount,” Stephanie Sandoval, a spokesperson for the State Department, told me in an email, noting that all refugees were undergoing “enhanced security vetting procedures.”
To American citizens and politicians wary of the US resettlement program, this reduction was a welcome shift and served to help keep the country safe.
But the extreme reduction in resettlement numbers has been disastrous for the refugee community, according to Melanie Nezer, policy director of the resettlement organization HIAS. Refugees planning to reunite with relatives in the US lost their slots to enter the country, as did thousands of other individuals living in camps abroad.
The Trump administration also withdrew in December from the UN Refugee Pact, signaling “a “lower engagement overall in global refugee policy,” Nezer said.
“The US has always taken responsibility to be part of the solution for people who have been persecuted... rather than put[ing] responsibility all on countries neighboring conflict,” she added.
"For millions of American Muslims this is a message of exclusion that is completely contrary to values our country was founded on.”
Finally, There's Trump's Travel Ban
The travel ban has been one of the highest-profile and most controversial policy changes of the Trump administration since it singled out individuals from specific countries as ineligible for US entrance. After his first two versions of the ban were struck down in court, Trump issued a third version in September that is currently being enforced as legal challenges move forward.
“Our government's first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values,” Trump said in his statement about the most recent version of the ban.
The current ban limits travel from six majority-Muslim countries—Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—as well as North Korea and Venezuela.
“For the families affected, this is really heartbreaking—they're facing the prospect of never being able to live with their loved ones in this country,” said Cody Wofsy, an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. “And for millions of American Muslims this is a message of exclusion that is completely contrary to values our country was founded on.”
Individuals from the banned countries can apply for waivers to be accepted into the US, but Wofson said he had so far not heard of any waivers being granted.
But Department of State spokesperson Virgil Carstens said the ban was integral for national security. Carstens said he could not provide information on the number of visa waivers granted, nor could he share information about Begami’s case, but added waivers could be granted if a visa denial would cause undue hardship, and if the applicant’s entrance into the US would serve in the national interest.
“We will continue to work with identified countries to address information sharing deficiencies that resulted in their recommendation for travel restrictions,” Carstens told me in an email.
Meanwhile, Gerami, whose family has reapplied for his visa, waits in Montreal for word from the US embassy about whether he can seek life-saving treatment in California.
“He’s gotten depression and anxiety, and has lost his speech because of the tumor,” his daughter told me. “Sometimes he just cries.”
*Correction 12/02/2018: A previous version of this story cited a visa approval rate above 10 percent, when in fact it was said to be above 90 percent. We regret the error.
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