Barack Obama has had a mixed record when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. His administration has deported more undocumented residents than any in history (between 2 and 3 million), but he also used his power as president to enact the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which has given more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who've grown up in the US work permits and safety from deportation.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, staked his candidacy to the idea that he would be harsher on immigrants—especially undocumented immigrants—than Obama. He's said he wanted to abolish DACA, famously called for the mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, and, of course, wants to build a wall (or fence) along the Mexican border. He's floated the idea of ending birthright citizenship. And he might do something or other about temporary work visas. His pick for attorney general is Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who has voted against almost every immigration bill in Senate. Most recently, Trump chose retired Marine general John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
But what does all that mean for ordinary immigrants feeling (probably justifiably) nervous about a Trump administration? To figure out some of these issues, we spoke with attorney William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, about what both legal and undocumented immigrants can and should be prepared for in the coming years.
VICE: Before we jump into Trump, what was immigration like under Obama?
William Stock: I think what people don't realize is that the border is more secure than it's ever been. We have more than 30,000 border patrol agents. When I started practicing [in 1993], there were fewer than 10,000. What that has done is it has meant that people no longer cross back-and-forth. You had lot of illegal immigrants who used to come for a season, earn some money, and then they would go back home. By militarizing the border, we created a situation where it was more expensive and more dangerous for people to cross. Once you've done that, people don't want to just come for the season.
I think the piece that gets lost in this enforcement-only solution is that there does need to be a legal route for people to come here if there is demand for them in the economy. The jobs that are getting created are not necessarily jobs that a 55-year-old manufacturing worker wants to come and do. Jobs getting created as dishwashers in restaurants in Philadelphia are not going to attract an unemployed steelworker from Altoona for very good reason. That unemployed steel worker has a family. He has a house and a community that he's a part of.
Which of Trump's promises on immigration do you think are most possible for him to enact?
I think you have to separate legal possibility from political possibility. I think the interesting thing that a President Trump will find out is there are powers that the president can exercise, but the more broadly he exercises them, the more barriers he runs into. You know, he talks about reducing the percentage of immigrants in America to, he says, historic levels. What he really means is levels at a particularly low period of immigration for the United States—during the Second World War. You have to limit legal immigration in order to get to that point. Well, the president can't really limit legal immigration. He will have to ask Congress to pass laws that would limit legal immigration, and he will find that there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who favor continuing to allow people to immigrate legally.
Under Trump's administration, how can legal immigrants ensure they aren't at risk of being deported?
[For green card holders], I would say if they've had it for five years, they want to apply for a citizenship because citizenship is almost impossible for the government to take away. The Supreme Court has said that Americans can give up their citizenship, but that the government can't take it away. Next would be permanent residents who don't have five years yet. They want to make sure they're in compliance with the law and that they don't do anything that would cause them to lose that status because the machinery will be there to remove them. The people who are on the legal temporary visas like the H-1B, if they are in the permanent resident process, they obviously want to push that forward.
The next group is the folks who have DACA. Right now, I think everyone expects that Trump will end DACA. It's really a question of whether that has an immediate end on January 21, or if that is allowed to gradually phase out. I would say to those folks, if they have any other kind of relief under the act, they need to be ready to pursue it. Obviously, Immigration Services is aware of their presence in the United States, and I think there will be, at least in the initial part of the Trump administration, a real incentive to show results [and deport people].
What about undocumented immigrants? What should they be doing right now? Packing?
You know, the problem is, as an attorney, you can't counsel someone to break the law. I think if people have not checked in with a lawyer or a community-based organization about whether or not they have any ability to stay in the United States, they may want to do so. People who are in communities where they feel they are at risk for enforcement, they should certainly be prepared in the sense of thinking about if they have property, if they have family, who will take care of those things if they are suddenly removed from that community. We are certainly seeing that people are beginning to make those kinds of plans.
What should people outside of the US who want to come here be thinking right now?
Well, I think Trump has indicated... that if you come from Muslim-majority countries, it's very likely that refugee programs from those countries are no longer going be things that the United States participates in. And so you'll be wanting to look for other options. That may or may not be good geopolitics. It certainly allows ISIS to say that America is at war with Islam.
Will it be harder for people to come here at-large?
After 9/11, we saw that decision-making often became less transparent. It was less easy to figure out why someone was having trouble with the process. Was it because their marriage was being questioned? Or was it because they were Muslim? I anticipate we will see more ambiguous situations like that where some people going through the process face challenges they might not have faced for the last few years.
What about green card marriages? Should people be trying to pursue those?
No, it's never a good idea to get married just to get a green card.
How does the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), cementing the economic relationship between Mexico, Canada, and the US, fall into this? Isn't there a NAFTA-specific visa?
There is, and the president-elect has said that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA. There is a temporary visa for professionals that's used by Canadians and some Mexicans called the TN. That's part of the NAFTA agreement. It would go away, which also means that lots of Americans who live in Canada on the Canadian version of the NAFTA visa would have to come back to the United States. That's the thing about treaties. We have to understand whatever we do to foreign countries, those foreign countries then turn around and do to Americans.
Do you think, ultimately, fewer people will want to come here altogether?
Well, ultimately, if we make America unwelcoming enough, I suppose people may no longer want to come. And there are huge contributions to our economy from foreign students—billions of dollars a year that foreign students pay not just in tuition, but in living expenses while they're here. Companies will relocate their operations outside the US if they can't get engineers in. So, yeah, ultimately, if we make our country unwelcoming enough, we may see fewer people wanting to come here. And that, I think, would really be destroying what makes America great.
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