A Guide to Some Major Trump Administration Immigration Policies

Shoes left at a port of entry near El Paso, Texas, June 21, 2018 during a protest rally by several American mayors against the US administration's family separation policy.

Shoes left at a port of entry near El Paso, Texas, June 21, 2018 during a protest rally by several American mayors against the US administration's family separation policy. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

October 22, 2019

Donald Trump spent much of his time on the 2016 campaign trail pitching major immigration reforms. He promised to build a “great, great wall” at the southern border, and decried immigration policy under the Obama administration. “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he said in the speech launching his presidential bid.

And he would quickly make good on his tough immigration talk: Within a week of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order known as the travel ban — sparking outrage, protests and chaos at airports.

“We’ve never before had a president and a political party and an administrative structure that is dedicated to reducing immigration, that has stated that this is their primary objective,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

FRONTLINE’s documentary Zero Tolerance examines how President Trump used resentment over immigration as a potent political weapon. Here, we take a closer look at some of the sweeping changes his administration has made — or attempted to make — to the United States’ policies governing refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, both legal and illegal.

Travel Ban

What happened: The first travel ban, issued Jan. 27, 2017, denied entry to nationals from seven countries for 90 days and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days while a review of the screening process was carried out. Critics noted that the ban, which cited terrorism threats, primarily targeted Muslim-majority countries. Key parts of it were put on hold nationwide by a federal district judge on Feb. 3, 2017. The judge wrote that residents would be adversely affected in “employment, education, business, family relations, and freedom to travel” and harms were “significant and ongoing.” A few days later, a federal appeals court upheld the ruling, writing that the administration had shown “no evidence” that people from the banned countries had carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S.

A revised version, from March 6, 2017, was also temporarily blocked by federal judges who said it seemed designed to discriminate against Muslims. That June, the Supreme Court allowed partial enforcement while it made its way through courts, exempting those who could prove “bona fide” ties to the U.S.

A third version of the travel ban, put into place Sept. 24, 2017, imposed permanent travel restrictions on nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — all countries that were part of the original travel ban — in addition to North Korea and officials from Venezuela. This version blocked most people from permanent residency in the U.S., as well as specific categories of visitors depending on the country. It exempted those who already had valid visas and green cards, and also included an option for case-by-case waivers for those who could prove their entry wouldn’t pose a national security or safety threat to the U.S. and would be in America’s national interest, and that denying their entry would cause “undue hardship.”

What’s the impact: Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 72 percent drop in people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen approved for permanent residence per month, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Visas that allowed temporary travel declined by an average of 51 percent.

Status: The Supreme Court allowed the third and final version of the travel ban to take effect in December 2017, and upheld it in June 2018. It remains in place.

Shifting Asylum Policies

What happened: The Trump administration has undertaken several measures to restrict the flow of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and limit who qualifies for asylum, but two of the most consequential ones went into effect this year. The Migrant Protection Protocols, also referred to as Remain in Mexico, require those seeking entry at the southern border — including asylum seekers — to wait in Mexico until their day in court rather than wait in the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security cast the policy as a way to restore a “safe and orderly immigration process,” reduce fraud, and protect vulnerable populations from being exploited by smugglers and traffickers. It was launched in January, but also faced legal challenges. As the case made its way through courts, a group representing U.S. asylum officers urged a federal appeals court to block MPP, saying it “abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and violates our international and domestic legal obligations.”

Another major change came in July, with a rule that barred anyone from claiming asylum in the U.S. if they first crossed through another nation and failed to apply for asylum there, with some exceptions. The measure would effectively block all asylum seekers at the southern border, except Mexicans.

Meanwhile, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries that account for a majority of migrants at the border right now — agreed to deals with the Trump administration that, if implemented, could lead to them accepting asylum applicants diverted from the U.S. border. Capps noted that any plan to send asylum seekers to those countries would require a lot of preparation and infrastructure to be built in both the U.S. and participating countries.

What’s the impact: As of Oct. 8, more than 51,000 people were returned to Mexico to await their court dates, according to Customs and Border Protection. Human Rights First, an advocacy group, found more than 100 cases of rape, kidnapping and other violent crimes when they interviewed asylum seekers sent back to Mexico. “Some asylum seekers returned under MPP have been kidnapped outside immigration offices in Mexico, virtually in sight of U.S. officials,” the August report said.

Status: MPP remains in place while facing legal challenges. In fact, returns accelerated from six a day in the program’s first months to 473 returns a day by August. The Supreme Court in September allowed the near-total asylum ban — which was blocked by a federal judge — to take effect while a legal battle plays out.

“Zero Tolerance” and Family Separation

What happened: In spring 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy, warning that everyone who crossed the southern border illegally would be referred for criminal prosecution. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said.  The announcement came amid a surge of border crossings, many of them families. Because the children of parents who were referred for prosecution couldn’t be kept in jails with them, they were separated and put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. While some within the Trump administration tried to frame family separations as an unforeseen circumstance of enforcing the law, other officials clearly stated that separating children was meant to act as a deterrent. During a pilot of this policy, carried out the year before Sessions announced it, the administration said the number of families trying to cross declined by 64 percent, attributing the drop to prosecutions.

What’s the impact: A court order led to HHS identifying more than 2,730 children who had been separated from their parents, according to an internal watchdog report. But the report noted that “the total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” because “thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017.”

Status: Amid a huge outcry, Trump ended family separation with an executive order on June 20, 2018. This August, the administration moved to allow the indefinite detention of families.

Refugee Admissions

What happened: The executive order that announced the first travel ban in January 2017 also suspended the refugee admission program for 120 days and called for a review of the screening and admission process. It also lowered the admissions ceiling, which President Barack Obama had set at 110,000 for fiscal year 2017, to 50,000. Since then, President Trump has set the cap for refugee admissions at lower and lower levels.

What’s the impact: President Trump set the cap for 2018 at 45,000; 22,491 were admitted. The cap for 2019 was set to 30,000 and was reached, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center. The cap for 2020 is 18,000, “the lowest number of refugees settled by the U.S. in a single year since 1980,” according to Pew Research Center.

This comes at a time when the number of people displaced by violence and persecution has reached the highest levels the UN Refugee Agency has seen in 70 years. MPI analysis of State Department data also showed the admission of Muslim refugees had drastically declined (87 percent drop) between 2016 and September 2019 compared to Christian refugees (37 percent drop) in the same time period.

Capps noted that the reduction in refugee admissions has dismantled the infrastructure to resettle refugees. Some officers who dealt with refugee applications have been reassigned to asylum cases, and some agencies that handled resettlement have closed because of lack of funding.

Status: Still in place.

Public Charges

What happened: U.S. immigration laws dating back to the 1800s sought to exclude those who were “unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Since 1999, a public charge had been defined as someone who was, or was likely to become, “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through cash assistance or long-term institutional care.

A new “public charge” rule applying to legal immigrants went into effect on Oct. 15. It expanded the types of public benefits that define someone as a public charge, including the use of food stamps, subsidized housing or certain Medicaid benefits for more than a year within a 3-year window. Using two benefits in one month would count as two months. With some exceptions, those people could be ineligible for green cards or visa extensions. The applicants’ age, health, financial status and educational background would also be considered to determine how likely they were to become a public charge.

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Kenneth Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told NPR.

A more recent presidential proclamation that goes into effect Nov. 3 says the U.S. will only accept immigrant visa applications — visas that people obtain before becoming permanent U.S. residents — from those who are able to obtain health care in the U.S. within 30 days of arrival, or have the resources to pay for “reasonably foreseeable medical costs.”

What’s the impact: DHS estimated that 382,000 green card applicants annually would be subject to review under the public charge rule. It estimated more than 324,000 would either drop or not enroll in public benefit programs. MPI estimated that the chilling effects of the rule could impact up to 10 million noncitizens, even those the rule doesn’t apply to. One in seven adults in immigrant families said they or a family member avoided public benefits in 2018 because they were scared it could put a future green card at risk, according to the Urban Institute. The health insurance requirement could block an estimated 375,000 immigrants per year, according to MPI’s analysis.

Status: Federal judges in three separate rulings blocked the public charge rule on Oct. 11, days before it would take effect. One judge wrote, “The harms to children, including U.S. citizen children, from reduced access to medical care, food assistance, and housing support … will compound over time.” The health insurance proclamation is also expected to face legal challenges.

Temporary Protected Status Ended

What happened: Temporary protected status is a form of relief that is extended to foreign nationals already in the U.S. if they can’t safely return to their home countries because of conflict, disasters or other extraordinary circumstances. Starting in September 2017, the administration ended TPS for a number of countries, some of whom had been here since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The affected countries include El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. Citizens of Somalia, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan received extensions.

What’s the impact: The end of TPS would affect approximately 250,000 Salvadorans, 56,000 Haitians, 80,600 Hondurans, 14,500 Nepalis, 4,500 Nicaraguans and 800 Sudanese, according to USCIS data compiled by the Congressional Research Service. It’s the length of some of these people’s stays in the U.S. that led to a conundrum. “They’ve established lives here, they have work histories, employment, they own homes, they have children, some even have grandchildren by now,” Capps said. “It’s very difficult for them to plan on what to do if this ends.”

Status: A federal judge temporarily blocked DHS from ending TPS for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan in October 2018, and DHS extended TPS for those four countries until January 2020 in order to comply. Honduras and Nepal, which had their TPS designation terminated after the first four, also had their terminations put on hold while the cases make it through court.


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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