Tracking Trump On Immigration: A Relentless Push To Reshape Migration

May 17, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 3:49 pm

Updated Sept. 13, 3:55 p.m. ET

The Trump administration has pushed to reshape the nation's approach to immigration — right down to how to read the words engraved on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition last month.

The administration has tried every tool at its disposal to tighten the nation's immigration policies — including the so-called "public charge" rule that makes it harder for immigrants to get green cards or visas if they use a wide range of public assistance. It also has pushed to ramp up enforcement, carrying out the biggest workplace raids in at least a decade.

At the same time, many of the administration's efforts have been stalled or blocked by Congress, the courts, or state and local officials. Below is a look at what the White House has accomplished on immigration — and what it hasn't.

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Asylum Crackdown

The southern border is effectively closed to the vast majority of migrants seeking asylum after the Supreme Court allowed a new Trump administration policy to go into effect while a legal challenge plays out in court.

That new asylum rule says that immigration authorities can deny asylum to migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unless they have first applied for protections in a country they crossed on the way to the United States.

The new policy had been put on hold in part by a federal judge in California, who found it "inconsistent with the existing asylum laws." But the high court stayed that injunction, allowing the new rule to take effect for now.

The asylum rule is one of many of efforts by the administration to discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. The White House argues that many migrants are abusing generous asylum laws to live and work in the country until their cases are heard in immigration court, which can take years because of extensive backlogs.

The White House says Guatemala has also signed a so-called "safe third country asylum agreement." The deal would require migrants traveling through Guatemala from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador to claim asylum in Guatemala before trying in the U.S. Though it's not clear whether the agreement is legal, as the Guatemalan Congress is supposed to ratify such treaties, or how it will be implemented.

Courts have previously rejected other policies that would limit asylum, including the administration's attempt to deny refuge to any migrant who crossed the border illegally. But the Justice Department has succeeded in making it harder to get asylum based on gang or domestic violence, as well as family ties.

The DOJ also pushed to get rid of bond hearings for detained asylum-seekers, but has been blocked from doing so. And the administration wants to hold migrant families with children in detention until their day in immigration court to discourage them from coming.

Workplace Raids

Federal immigration officials raided seven food-processing plants in Mississippi in August, arresting about 680 people believed to be working in the U.S. without authorization, and also seizing company business records.

More than 600 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were involved in the operation. They were by far the largest workplace raids of the Trump administration, and the biggest since 2006.

ICE later released hundreds of those who were arrested with orders to appear in immigration court. But the raids left many of their family members scrambling for support.

The owners of the poultry-processing plants have yet to be charged with any wrongdoing.

Family Detention

The Trump administration is moving to end a long-standing legal agreement known as the Flores settlement that limits how long migrant families with children can be detained.

Under Flores, the government has to release migrant kids from detention centers as quickly as possible, generally within 20 days. New regulations proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would lift that limit and make other major changes as well.

This has been a longtime goal of immigration hardliners in the Trump administration, who argue that Flores has acted as a lure to families in Central America.

Doctors and immigrant advocates argue that detention is extremely harmful to children. A federal judge in California would have to sign off on the new regulations before they take effect.


President Trump has threatened to deport "millions" of immigrants living in the country illegally. Arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. spiked during the first two years of the Trump administration — for immigrants with and without criminal records.

But the numbers remain well below the highest figures of President Obama's first term. And the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says arrests and deportations declined in early 2019 because the agency is devoting more resources to the southern border.

Also, the administration's plan to undertake nationwide ICE raids to round up undocumented families failed to materialize.

The administration is expanding the use of so-called expedited removal to fast-track deportations of immigrants without a hearing before an immigration judge, unless they can prove they've been in the U.S. continuously for more than two years.

And immigrant advocates say aggressive enforcement by ICE continues to create a climate of fear among unauthorized migrants.

Tariffs on Mexico

The White House warned that the U.S. would impose a tariff of 5% on all products from Mexico and escalate it — unless Mexico agreed to "substantially" curtail the flow of Central American migrants

Under pressure from Washington, Mexico agreed to step up enforcement and to take in more migrants waiting for their U.S. asylum hearings. Mexico also deployed thousands of troops to its northern and southern borders.

And the number of migrants taken into custody after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border began to decline. The monthly total fell in August to just over 64,000 after peaking at more than 144,000 in May — though the number still remains higher than the same period a year ago.

President Trump has threatened several times over the past year to close the southern border unless the Mexican government does more to combat illegal immigration. But the White House backed down under pressure from business groups. Those groups — and their allies in Congress — pushed back on the proposed tariffs, as well.

Remain in Mexico

The Department of Homeland Security has sent more than 30,000 migrants back to Mexico to wait for months until a U.S. immigration court decides their asylum cases.

Immigrant advocates, lawyers and former U.S. officials say the country is turning its back on asylum-seekers — vulnerable people who are allowed under U.S. law to seek sanctuary here.

A federal court initially blocked the administration from sending asylum-seekers back to crime-ridden Mexican border towns where many are staying in shelters.

But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's injunction, allowing the "Remain in Mexico" policy to continue while the case plays out.

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates say conditions are worsening for migrants in border towns, targeted by gangs and cartels.

Merit-Based System

President Trump has laid out sweeping changes he'd like to make to the legal immigration system. The White House proposal would favor immigrants with higher skills and more education, and it would shift the immigration system away from family reunification, which has been its guiding principle since 1965.

But the latest proposal is getting little traction on Capitol Hill — particularly among Democrats, whose support would be necessary for the proposal to become law.

Sanctuary Cities

Federal courts have widely rejected the Justice Department's attempts to withhold law enforcement grants from so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. In April, President Trump threatened to bus migrants from the border and then release them in sanctuary cities. But so far, his administration has not acted on those threats.

Family Separation

The administration's "zero tolerance" policy was intended to deter illegal border crossings by separating migrant parents and children at the border — until President Trump ended the policy under pressure last June.

A federal judge has ordered the administration to reunite nearly 3,000 children with their parents. The same judge has since ordered the administration to identify hundreds of additional families that were separated before the "zero tolerance" policy took effect.

The ACLU, which challenged the family separation policy, went back to court in July. In court filings, the ACLU argues that the administration has separated more than 900 parents and children and infants since the judge's ruling, many on flimsy legal grounds.

The administration concedes that a small number of migrant children are still being separated from their parents at the border — but only if the parent has a criminal record, or there's another reason that separation is in the best interest of the child.

Immigrant advocates say migrant children are also being routinely separated from caregivers at the border — with older family members being placed in the Remain in Mexico program, while the children they've brought are taken into U.S. custody.

The Wall

The Supreme Court handed the White House a victory in July when it allowed the Trump administration to use military construction funds to build some sections of the president's border wall while litigation is ongoing.

A lower court had initially frozen the $2.5 billion in funds, and an appeals court agreed. But the high court ruled that the Pentagon funds can be tapped for now.

The dispute began earlier this year when President Trump declared a national emergency in order to secure funding for his signature immigration policy: the border wall. The Trump administration wants to spend a total of $6 billion from military and counter-drug accounts.

That emergency declaration is still being challenged in court by critics who say there is no emergency, and that the president is flouting the will of Congress in order to deliver on a key campaign promise.

Lawmakers also have authorized more than $1.3 billion for 55 miles of steel fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.


The Supreme Court will hear arguments next term about the Trump administration's efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

In the meantime, nearly 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children are still protected from deportation and allowed to work legally under the program created by President Obama in 2012. The Trump administration tried to end DACA, but has been blocked from doing so by several federal courts.

Democrats and moderate Republicans are likely to insist on some relief for DACA recipients as part of any comprehensive immigration overhaul, while immigration hardliners are wary of granting "amnesty" or a path to citizenship.

Travel Ban

The Trump administration's effort to restrict immigration and travel from several majority-Muslim countries was blocked by lower courts. But a modified version — including the majority-Muslim countries of Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, plus North Korea and Venezuela — was upheld by the Supreme Court in a major victory for the White House.

Another legal challenge remains after a federal judge in Maryland ruled that lawsuit can go forward. But that could take years, so it may be a long time before people who are affected by the policy see a change, if any.


The administration has moved to wind down Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for more than 400,000 immigrants from countries wracked by civil conflict or natural disasters.The immigrants are protected from deportation and allowed to work in the U.S.

A number of legal challenges have been filed. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security has been blocked from ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Sudan by a judge in California.

Birthright Citizenship

Shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump threatened to do away with automatic citizenship for anyone born in the United States. He brought up the idea again in August 2019, saying the White House was "looking very, very seriously" at abolishing birthright citizenship — even though the vast majority of legal scholars believe it is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

So far, the president has not followed through on his threats.

The administration has been criticized for ending automatic citizenship for the children of some U.S. military members and government workers overseas. When that policy was first announced, critics of the administration speculated it might be the first step toward ending birthright citizenship — a charge the administration quickly denied.

Public Benefits

Homeland Security has released the final version of regulations that would make it easier to deny legal immigrants green cards or visas if they use a wide range of public benefits, such as food stamps and subsidized health insurance.

The Trump administration argues the so-called "public charge" rule merely enforces a century-old provision in U.S. immigration law that says immigrants should be self-sufficient.

But critics say the regulations could dramatically reshape the U.S. immigration system by turning away thousands of immigrants from poorer countries. Multiple lawsuits have been filed to block the regulations, including cases brought by state attorneys general and by advocacy groups.

Public Housing

Thousands of families that include undocumented members could be forced out of public housing by a rule proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These families include an estimated 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

The rule is intended to prevent undocumented immigrants or mixed-status families from living in public housing. It's still in the public comment stage, and critics are pressuring HUD Secretary Ben Carson to reconsider.

Refugee Cap

The Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will accept. The official cap is set at 30,000 for the year, the lowest figure since the current refugee resettlement program began in 1980.

That's forcing refugee resettlement offices across the country to close or suspend their services. And the administration is weighing further cuts to the refugee program next year.

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President Trump is calling for a fundamental overhaul of how the United States handles immigration. The president unveiled the proposal at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden yesterday. His plan favors immigrants who are younger and more educated.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance. We won't anymore once we get this passed.

GREENE: Now, immigration, of course, has been a major focus for the Trump administration, but many of its efforts to reshape and restrict who is admitted to the U.S. have been blocked either by the courts or by Congress, and this proposal may be next. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us in our studios in Washington. Hi, Joel.


GREENE: All right. So the president has a plan that would prioritize so-called merit-based immigration. I just wonder, like, what is the criteria that they would use in terms of who to admit?

ROSE: Right. Well, like you said at the top, it would favor immigrants who are younger, who have more education, more skills, more income, who speak English and who can pass a civics exam. All of that would be a really big change in how we do legal immigration in this country, a shift away from family reunification - you know, reunification based on family ties - which has been the basis of our immigration system for decades now. And also, this would mean shifting away from, you know, certain humanitarian immigration, like the refugee resettlement program.

GREENE: It sounds like the reaction so far from Congress has been very negative - and not just from Democrats.

ROSE: Yeah. That's right. Immigration hard-liners don't really like this plan either because it wouldn't actually reduce legal immigration. It would just change the profile of the people who can come in, but it would keep the overall number of new green cards at about the same level as now, at about a million per year. And Democrats don't like it because it doesn't really address their big concerns on immigration, including what to do about the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here in the country. And Democrats control the House, so you really can't pass legislation without them.

GREENE: But could it be because his approach so far hasn't really worked? I mean, what is his track record so far in getting some of the changes he's talked about?

ROSE: It's mixed. Some of the administration's most ambitious efforts to restrict immigration have been stymied by the courts. The administration has tried to punish so-called sanctuary cities, for example, that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. Courts have widely rejected those efforts. Today, a court in California will consider whether the president can use a national emergency declaration to redirect money to build his signature wall on the southern border.

And there are other administration efforts that are still in the pipeline. The administration has talked about punishing immigrants who use food stamps or who get subsidized health care or live in public housing. And finally, the administration has run into a fair amount of trouble trying to limit who can get asylum in this country. Remember the family separation policy of a year ago?

GREENE: Right.

ROSE: That was supposed to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., but the president had to walk it back under intense pressure, and migrants are still arriving in big numbers at the southern border.

GREENE: But, I mean, it's fair to say he's gotten some of his - the crackdown and tougher approach that he's wanted.

ROSE: For sure. You know, the Supreme Court upheld his travel ban on immigrants and visitors from seven countries, including several majority-Muslim countries. Deportations and arrests are way up since Trump took office. The administration has cut refugee admissions to their lowest level in decades. Those are maybe the high-profile changes that have gone through. But the administration's also made a lot of smaller changes to rules and regulations, and immigration experts say those things may really make a big difference when you add them all up.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for us. Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.