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 administrative process.
“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 legal loophole.
“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.”
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