Trump's attacks on the legal immigration system explained

By Peniel Ibe

Update as of Jan. 25, 2021: Soon after taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order ending the "Remain in Mexico policy," the Muslim ban, and other harmful immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration. 

Learn more: "Biden's changes to the immigration system explained." 

The Trump administration continues to make harmful changes to U.S. immigration policies. While the administration’s cruel policies at the border and ramping up of deportations and immigration raids have garnered the most attention, its other efforts to transform legal immigration have been no less radical—and no less devastating on immigrant communities.  

As the world continues to grapples with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump announced on April 20 that he would sign an executive order to suspend immigration to the United States. The administration continues to exploit the pandemic to implement its anti-immigrant agenda. 

This order follows a series of attacks on legal immigration pathways including an expanded travel ban from African and Muslim majority countries, and a rapid dismantling of the asylum system. The administration also issued an order to allow an increased, systemic rapid expulsion of asylum seekers including migrants found at the border and children. 

TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to cut funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)!

What's more, the Trump administration has bypassed Congress’s lawmaking authority and used its executive powers to rewrite immigration policy–with little or no pushback from Congress itself.  

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 by people of color.

Most people don’t support the Trump agenda–the majority of the public thinks that immigration is a good thing and should not be decreased. That’s why it’s important to understand and oppose the changes underway. 

Here is a running list of Trump’s attacks on the legal immigration system. 

What changes has the administration implemented? 

Undermining asylum: The Trump administration has repeatedly imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers, making it nearly impossible for many people to claim protection in the United States. These restrictions include preventing migrants from applying for asylum if they traveled through another country before reaching the U.S. if they didn’t apply in the previous country. The administration has also exported its asylum provision obligations to ill-equipped countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

In January 2019, the Trump administration began implementing its “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces Central Americans seeking asylum to return to Mexico–for an indefinite amount of time–while their claims are processed. Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. government has postponed all immigration court hearings, effectively stranding asylum seekers in Mexico. To make matters worse, asylum seekers are still required to go to their port of entry on the day of their previously scheduled court date to receive a new notice to appear—or face a deportation order for not showing up. Learn more.

Now the administration is exploiting the pandemic to impose a categorical ban on people seeking asylum, further endangering the lives of migrants—including children.

Banning people from majority Muslim countries: The third version of Trump’s racist Muslim ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, barring entry for almost everybody from several Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Iran, Libya, Chad, Somalia, and Syria. 

In January 2020, the administration expanded its Muslim ban to target even more immigrants of color. The expanded ban targets mostly African countries—including Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Eritrea—as well as Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. Learn more.

Reducing refugee admissions: Since taking office, the Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees that could be admitted into the U.S. to historically low numbers- thus undermining this vital humanitarian program. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, the Administration set a target of 45,000 refugees and ultimately resettled only 22,507 refugees into the United States.  In FY 2019, the Administration further slashed the target to just 30,000, which was the number of refugees ultimately admitted. For FY 2020, the Administration set a target of only 18,000 refugees and at five days to the end of FY20, had only admitted 10,892 refugees- limiting arrivals based on preference categories, not geographic need, or vulnerability. For FY 21, the White House proposed another historic low of 15,000 refugees.

Attacking the Diversity Visa Program: Trump has repeatedly targeted and called for the end of the Diversity Visa Program, which allows people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates to apply for a visa lottery, ultimately leading to lawful permanent residency. The administration has begun suspending the Diversity Visa program for countries including Tanzania and Sudan and limiting who can apply. Exploiting the COVID19 pandemic, the Trump administration froze the processing of nearly 43,000 diversity visa winners in hopes that their applications will time out and be forfeited. Advocates challenged this action in the courts and won a resumption of visa processing.

Imposing a “wealth test” for immigrants with legal status and their families: In the spring of 2020, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to implement its cruel “public charge” immigration policy. The policy essentially punishes immigrants and their families for using certain public benefits, like Medicaid or SNAP (food stamps), and forces them to prove they are wealthy enough to not rely on government assistance in the future. Litigation against this policy is still ongoing, and the implementation of the rule may be permanently halted if the final ruling is unfavorable to the administration.

Targeting pregnant women: The administration now allows the State Department to deny temporary visas to pregnant women or women they believe intend to travel to the U.S. to give birth–a backdoor way of limiting the scope of the 14th amendment. This “pregnancy ban” targets nationals of countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East that are required to obtain visas to visit the U.S. 

Creating obstacles for workers and their families: The administration is increasingly denying and delaying more foreign-skilled worker requests—denials have risen from 6% in 2015 to 32% in early 2019. An increased issuing of “requests for evidence” to challenge the basis of original petitions can add on several months to the application process for individuals. 

Slowing applications for green cards (permanent residency) and citizenship: What used to be straightforward application processes have been dramatically slowed down and halted. By the end of 2017, the backlog of pending green card applications had increased by more than 35%. 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 citizenship or permanent residency in limbo. 

In addition, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) now allows officers to deny outright 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. Green card applicants are increasingly denied at consulates abroad based on the implementation of a new public charge guidance. 

Limiting avenues to access immigration services: The Trump administration is closing all 21 overseas USCIS field offices across 20 countries before the end of the year. This move greatly impacts refugee applications, asylum seekers, and other immigration-related matters, such as international adoptions and family reunifications.

Pushing more people into deportation proceedings: Although USCIS is not an enforcement agency, a 2018 policy change has made it easier for it to funnel people it denies into deportation proceedings by issuing a “Notice to Appear” (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 is discouraging applications for life-saving visas to protect people who are survivors of trafficking and domestic violence. Policy changes and poor management of USCIS has created crisis-level processing delays and application backlogs that may result in an applicants’ loss of immigration status while awaiting approval. During the summer of 2020, poor fiscal mismanagement if USCIS led to threats of closure and furlough of thousands of staff. USCIS continues to prioritize ICE’s work over its own- including transferring over $200 million in application fees to ICE to hire over 300 ICE enforcement officers.

Using immigration courts to increase deportations: The Trump administration has reopened 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. To speed up deportations, the Justice Department has established a case quota requirement for immigration judges, eroding the due process rights of immigrants by forcing judges to rush through cases. The administration has also restricted immigration judges’ ability to terminate deportation proceedings against immigrants except in very narrow circumstances. 

Going after naturalized citizens: A new denaturalization task force has begun working to strip citizenship from naturalized American citizens. While there are few legal grounds for denaturalization, the administration has already referred 100 cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. The creation of the task force is causing a sense of insecurity and uncertainty among naturalized citizens and permanent residents.

Creating a more xenophobic and less welcoming country: USCIS removed language celebrating the United States as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. The Justice Department also rescinded guidance documents involving language access issues and federal protections for non-native English speakers. 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?

Categorically ending asylum: The administration continues to propose multiple rules and policy changes that seek to shrink the scope of the asylum system including limiting eligibility criteria, eroding due process pathways, and creating administrative and financial obstacles when applying for asylum.  Lear more about the specific proposed changes to the asylum system.

Attacking DACA and TPS: Trump has worked to strip legal status from more than one million people. Despite a Supreme Court ruling to uphold Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), has since undermined the Supreme Court’s decision and is continuing to dismantle the program- again jeopardizing the futures of more than 700,000 people who came to the U.S. as children and the 300,000 who could have qualified for DACA. And by ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) 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. A recent court ruling reversed a previous decision that protected TPS holders—and in as little as six months, deportations could begin. Read more about TPS and DACA

Increasing the cost of immigration: The Trump administration wants to impose another hurdle for immigrants applying for legal immigration status in the U.S.—hiking fees for people applying for citizenship and, for the first time, charging a fee to those seeking asylum. Immigrants, allies, and members of Congress spoke out against the change. USCIS has yet to say when it will issue a final rule. Read more.

Expediting deportations: In 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would expand its use of “expedited removal” to rapidly deport undocumented immigrants who cannot prove they have lived continuously in the U.S. for two years or more, essentially denying their rights to due process in court. Immigrant rights groups challenged this policy by suing the administration. Previously, a lower court granted a preliminary injunction halting implementation. However, a circuit court of appeals lifted the injunction allowing ICE officers to implement this policy.

Creating obstacles for families of immigrant workers: The Trump administration announced that it would impose further restrictions on temporary work visas for highly skilled foreign workers. The new regulations, which bypasses the typical comment and notice comment period, will narrow the definition of “specialty occupations,” shorten the visa’s validity to one year, and enforce stricter hiring practices. The administration will likely face legal challenges.  

A recent presidential declaration will prevent at least 167,000 visa holders in the H-1B, and other temporary work visas category, their respective spouses and children from entering the U.S. from abroad till Dec 2020- unless they previously obtained a visa or have valid travel document. The administration has also 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 harm the industries that use the H-1B visa program.

Changing the structure of the refugee resettlement program: The administration also issued an executive order that permits state and local officials to block resettlement in their cities and states. In January 2020, a judge issued a temporary injunction that halts the policy for now.  

Changing the structure of student and exchange visitors' visas: Under the proposed rule, individuals applying to either F or J status would be eligible for stay in the United States that does not exceed 4 years. In some cases, especially Black and brown majority countries, international students, and scholars would be limited to 2 years, subject to renewal. Currently, these individuals can stay in the United States if they are complying with the terms and conditions of their visas. This “duration of status” does not have fixed end dates. Overall, if implemented without any change, this would be the largest changes to regulation of international students and exchange visitors in 20 years.

Imposing additional obstacles to immigration: The president also issued an executive order requiring immigrants to prove they can obtain health insurance before they are issued a visa. The order cannot yet be implemented as a lawsuit challenging it makes its way through the courts. 

Stand with immigrants and all people seeking refuge in the U.S.! Tell Congress to cut funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs Border Protection (CBP)!