There has often been a chasm between the lofty rhetoric of U.S. presidents and their actual policies. When it comes to immigration, Donald Trump does not have that problem. His rhetoric and policies are remarkably aligned. He is saying and doing things that no one—not even the most hardline restrictionists—thought imaginable a few years ago.
In 2015, Trump kicked off his election campaign with an infamous speech claiming that Mexico was sending “rapists and criminals” to America—never mind that immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized, commit crimes at far lower rates than the native-born, according to numerous studies by academics, think tanks, and the government itself. Any hope that he would dial back such dehumanizing comments once he got to the White House was quickly dashed. The president has denigrated people from “shithole countries” and resurrected long discarded blood-and-soil tropes, claiming, for example, that Central Americans fleeing organized crime and desperate poverty want to “infest” the United States. This is eerily similar to the language that nativists deployed against the Chinese, referring to them as “vermin” and “rats,” when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Trump elides distinctions between ordinary unauthorized immigrants—including women and children who have committed no offense other than to come here without permission—and alien gangs such as MS-13, and then he calls the latter group “animals, not people.”
This May, Trump invited Hungary’s xenophobic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to the White House—ending a 20-year banishment—and heaped fulsome praise on his “Hungary first” agenda. Orbán, who has erected a razor-wire fence to keep out Syrians merely passing through his country to seek asylum in Western Europe, wants America to join a new alliance of anti-immigration nations to counter bleeding-heart “globalists” who “are watching with their hands in the air” as Europe is “under invasion.”
Trump himself has indulged in Orbán-style talk of invasions. At a recent Panama City, Florida, rally, the president regaled the gathered throngs with tales about the southern border. “Two or three” border agents contend with the arrival of “hundreds and hundreds of people,” he lamented. “How do you stop these people?” When a fan shouted “shoot them,” Trump joked that “only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement.” To be sure, he added, he “wouldn’t do that.” But the fact that such violence is being joked about without rebuke at his events shows the shocking depths to which the national conversation about immigration has fallen.
It would be possible to dismiss such talk as empty rhetoric if the Trump administration weren’t also using every tool it can lay its hands on to advance its sweeping anti-immigration objectives. These include deterring asylum seekers, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants, making admission difficult for all but the tippy-top tier of foreigners, and generally slowing legal immigration to a crawl. Congress and the courts have thwarted some of Trump’s more flamboyant plans to build a wall on the southern border that could cost upward of $60 billion and strip so-called sanctuary cities of federal funding, the pro-immigration Migration Policy Institute’s Sarah Pierce and Andrew Selee note, but the president has nevertheless managed to engineer “deep shifts” in U.S. immigration policy that will have a lasting impact.
Trump is taking the unprecedented step of creating a spot in his administration for an immigration czar. The appointee’s No. 1 task will be to look for new ways to control the surge of Central Americans trying to get to the United States.
It is true that after falling for nearly a decade, border apprehensions have been climbing since January, reaching almost 100,000 in April. Still, we’re unlikely to see as many this year as we did in 2000 (1.6 million). And at least some of the increase is Trump’s own fault: His wild threats to “close the border” have caused panicked Central Americans to hasten to U.S. soil while they still might have a prayer of getting in.
The rational response would be to cool such rhetoric. Instead, Trump is defiantly threatening to reinstate the policy of separating migrant children from their parents. If Congress wants to prevent this, Trump says, it should pass a law allowing him to hold families with children together for more than 20 days, something that is illegal under current court rulings. But he says he won’t engage in what his restrictionist pals deride as “catch and release.”
Of course, Trump’s administration has made little effort to build decent detention facilities that would allow it to keep asylum seekers in humane conditions. Five kids in Customs and Border Protection’s care have died just since December.
Meanwhile, the administration has narrowed the eligibility criteria for asylum so that people who flee their home countries due to gang or domestic violence are disqualified. If she had arrived under the new guidance, the conservative darling Ayaan Hirsi Ali—a Somali immigrant who was the victim of genital mutilation by her Muslim family—wouldn’t have been able to get into America.
Trump is not only prepared to use brutal tactics against asylum seekers to deter them. He is also prepared to make an example of Americans who help them.
Scott Warren, an Arizona State University professor and volunteer at No More Deaths, a group that leaves food and water in the desert for exhausted migrants, is facing 20 years in prison on two sets of charges: harboring, because he admitted two migrants into a makeshift desert medical shelter to administer first aid, and trespassing, because the area where he did so is a federally protected wilderness that he did not have a permit to enter.
Border Patrol similarly invoked anti-harboring laws in February to arrest a Texas city attorney who let three Central American migrants in acute distress into her car to warm up after they flagged her on a West Texas highway.
The administration means business when it comes to interior enforcement. It has shown that it is prepared to use any law it can think of, even ones that have nothing to do with immigration, to go after anyone, activist or not, who crosses it. Incredibly, Trump has been flirting with invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to enlist the military in hunting down and ejecting unauthorized immigrants.
Nor is the current anti-immigration jihad limited to asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants. Legal immigrants in every category, including the previously sacrosanct skilled workers, are in the crosshairs.
The administration has targeted for deportation legal green card holders with petty criminal records. Victims include a Polish doctor who had lived in America for 40 years, because he’d been convicted in his youth of destroying property worth less than $100. Officials last year proposed regulations that would deny visa upgrades to any immigrant in a family of four who receives $2.50 per day in public assistance. And a leaked Department of Justice memo in May showed that the administration is constructing new rationales to deport green card holders who use the limited public benefits that they are entitled to.
At the time of this writing, Trump had backed away from the ultra-restrictionist RAISE Act, which would cut legal immigration by 40 percent by scrapping many family-based categories. In its stead, he embraced his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s reform plan, which would maintain current levels of immigration but reassign family-based visas to high-skilled foreigners in a bid to make America’s system more “merit-based.”
But in the unlikely event that Kushner manages to get his plan passed, he would have a hard time implementing it, thanks to the influence of White House aide Stephen Miller. Miller has foisted “extreme vetting” on every immigrant category, not just immigrants who pose a security risk. For example, the administration has suspended the Visa Interview Waiver program and now requires in-person interviews even for businessmen, tourists, or diplomatic personnel who simply wish to renew temporary visas. Ditto for green card applicants, all of whom now are subjected to face-to-face interviews. (In the past, only those whose applications raised some concern would be interrogated in person.) High-skilled H-1B visas are no longer renewed as a matter of course: The entire package of paperwork has to be resubmitted to ensure that foreign tech workers aren’t displacing any Americans. And certain visa applicants are being required to provide not just 15 years’ worth of travel, residential, and employment histories but also the usernames for all their social media accounts.
The cumulative result has been to create even more horrendous backlogs in a system long plagued by them. The average visa processing time for H-1Bs has already doubled under Trump, while denial rates have increased—and things are likely to get much worse, because an administration that prides itself on deregulation wants to make these requirements mandatory for all visa applicants.
Worse, Miller is pushing regulations to ensure that no foreigner admitted would ever become a “public charge.” By this he does not mean someone likely to become wholly or substantially dependent on the state, as is currently the case. Rather, he wants to expand the term to include anyone who accepts public assistance from a long list of programs. Even among high-skilled foreign techies, only the most well-paid will likely be able to placate such theoretical worries about future welfare use.
In the absence of a physical border barrier, Miller is constructing a bureaucratic wall high enough to deter all but the most privileged would-be migrants from even trying. His plan is working: 40 percent of colleges reported a drop in international student applications in 2018, according to a study conducted by several higher education groups. H-1B petitions have fallen 15 percent.
Conservatives have long hectored immigrants to come to America legally. But this administration’s determined bid to block legal channels will only compound unauthorized entry while overwhelming whatever authorized options remain, as the flood of Central American migrants clamoring for legal asylum amply proves.
The current president rode into the White House pledging to solve the immigration “crisis.” In fact, he is creating it. The cause of rational and humane immigration reform has never taken a bigger beating than under Donald Trump.