Donald Trump has failed to add another inch to the country’s border wall between the US and Mexico, but his administration this year has quietly erected a steep, invisible wall that limits migration to the US, according to interviews with lawyers and refugee groups.
Some of these roadblocks received considerable attention, like the three
versions of a travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries and
the cancellation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) — an
Obama-era programme that protected undocumented youth raised in the US.
But the Trump administration also appears to have orchestrated a more
subtle attack on immigration that touches the most vulnerable
populations, like refugees, as well as powerful business people who work
in the US.
“I think that they’re basically hoping that five years from now we see a
significant decrease in the number of people who even want to come,”
Sandra Feist, an immigration lawyer in Minnesota, told the Guardian. “I
think if we keep this up, that’s what we’ll see.”
Feist, who has worked in immigration law for 16 years and is a part of
the American Immigration Lawyers Association media and advocacy
committee, said a slew of small administrative changes have drastically
slowed the visa process.
This includes things such as increased scrutiny of the H-1B visa for
people in speciality occupations and a new requirement that people
seeking employer-sponsored green cards be interviewed.
For all visas, immigration lawyers have also seen an increase in
challenges, or requests for evidence, from United States Citizenship and
Immigration Services (USCIS), which oversees immigration.
When Trump was elected, Feist anticipated Congress would move to change
immigration law, but she said she did not expect interference with the
“I don’t think I expected them to attack my high-skilled immigration
process so aggressively,” Feist said. “I also was not prepared for the
ways in which they used the administrative processes so skillfully to
create very real hurdles and barriers in ways that didn’t require any
changes in the law.”
A concern for immigration lawyers is the direction of the USCIS under
its new ombudsman, Julie Kirchner, who for 10 years was director of
Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that has advocated
extreme restrictions on immigration.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) called for her removal in May.
“We do not believe that a person who has spent over a decade attacking
immigrant communities will now work effectively and thoughtfully to
advance the rights of immigrants and fulfil the important duties that
are required of this role,” the CHC said.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees USCIS, said it
does not comment on congressional correspondence to secretaries.
The changes at USCIS have hit the key pillars of immigration in the US:
employer and family-based, where citizens or a green card holder sponsor
a family member’s green card application.
I also was not prepared for how they used the administrative processes
to create very real hurdles and barriers Sandra Feist, immigration
lawyer Trump has said he wants to replace family-based immigration,
which he calls chain migration, with a merit-based system.
Trump has also called for Congress to terminate the diversity lottery
programme, which awards 50,000 visas to people vetted by the same
process as other visas.
“The lottery system and chain migration — we are going to end them fast.
Congress must get involved immediately, and they are involved
immediately, and I can tell you we have tremendous support, they will be
ended,” Trump said last week.
In the meantime, programmes to help people fleeing natural disasters,
violence and persecution have either been cancelled or slowed by
bureaucratic hurdles under Trump.
In July, advocates filed a lawsuit that accused DHS and Customs and
Border Protection (CBP) of putting asylum seekers at the US-Mexico
border in grave danger by threatening, misleading or rejecting them. The
agencies do not comment publicly on litigation.
Trump appointees have also dramatically shifted how the federal
government speaks about asylum, going as far as to suggest in public
communications the unproven claim that asylum is a routinely abused
“We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their
otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum
providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear
process,” the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in October.
USCIS said it does not have data that shows widespread abuse of the asylum system.
The Department of Justice, which Session heads, directed the Guardian to
five press releases and one news story about immigration fraud.
None of these cases demonstrated abuse of the asylum system — though a
Bosnian was found to have lied about his involvement in the country’s
civil war in order to obtain refugee status. Three of the fraud schemes
were orchestrated fully, or in part, by Americans.
This year, the administration has also gone after a programme that
grants temporary status to people affected by events like natural
disasters or conflict: Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In November,
TPS was terminated for more than 50,000 Haitians and 5,300 Nicaraguans
who must leave by 2019 or face deportation.
The largest group of (TPS) recipients, Salvadorans who fled their home
country after it was struck by earthquakes in 2001, are waiting to hear
whether their protection will be extended before it expires in January.
The US is losing its reputation as a beacon of safety and offering
protection to those who are in danger Hans Van de Weerd, International
Rescue Committee And the White House made refugees one if its primary
targets a week after Trump took office, when he issued an executive
order blocking refugees from entry in the first travel ban.
In September, the White House restricted refugee admissions in 2018 to
45,000 people — the lowest ceiling since the president began capping
refugee admissions in 1980.
Unlike the smaller administrative changes to immigration processing
being made in federal agencies, the travel ban was easily challenged in
courts and deemed unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court, however, allowed the third version of the travel ban
to be enforced this month while it faces multiple legal challenges.
This version does not block refugees, but does bar most citizens of
Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, Venezuela and North Korea from
entering the US.
Hans Van de Weerd, vice-president of US programmes at the International
Rescue Committee (IRC), said US efforts to restrict refugee admissions
signals to other countries that it is OK to kick out refugees. “It makes
the global challenge of offering protection to refugees so much
bigger,” Van de Weerd told the Guardian.
The Trump administration has also suspended refugee programmes such as
the Central American Minors programme, which allowed parents lawfully in
the US to bring their minor children to the country — IRC estimated the
programme protected nearly 2,700 people last year.
And administrative hurdles like expanded security checks and paperwork
requirements have put a further burden on an already slow system where
cases can take up to 200 days to clear.
“The country’s reputation as a beacon of safety and the values of this
nation are really about offering protection to those who are in danger,”
said Van de Weerd. “The US is losing that reputation.”
Despite the piling of bricks in the virtual wall, Van de Weerd said IRC
remained hopeful because the administration’s efforts inspired support
for groups that help immigrants and refugees.
“We’ve seen a massive interest from the private sector in resettlement and an increase in private donors,” said Van der Weerd.
“We see businesses standing up and saying we want to employ people.
We’ve had a hard time managing the huge inflows of volunteers.”
He wasn’t sure if the energy would turn the tide, but it gave him hope
as IRC prepares to push for more resettlements and improve the attitude
towards refugees next year.
Van der Weed said: “This whole situation has forced people to make clear where they stand.”
Daca protesters in the US