Behind Trump’s final push to limit immigrationNovember 30, 2020
Donald Trump is not done with immigration yet.
Since Election Day, the president’s staffers have pushed through changes that make it easier to deny visas to immigrants, lengthened the citizenship test and appointed new members to an immigration policy board.
Some aides even urged Trump to sign an executive order attempting to end birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants, said two people familiar with the discussions — a legally dubious tactic given that birthright citizenship is enshrined in the Constitution. A third person said the idea had recently been dismissed.
The moves amount to an 11th-hour attempt to solidify the Trump administration’s legacy on immigration, which started with a sweeping ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, swerved into scandal over family separation at the border and solidified with severe reductions on refugees and temporary foreign workers. Now, the focus is on putting a bind on President-elect Joe Biden, making it harder for him to reverse these politically fraught issues, according to half a dozen people familiar with the changes.
“What they’re doing through the transition is working their way down their list of items to minimize immigration to the U.S.,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “The Trump administration has been widely effective in terms of grinding our immigration system to a halt.”
Presidents of both parties have pushed through last-minute policies in the weeks before leaving office, but Trump’s actions are taking on a more urgent feel in part because he thought he would have a second term to implement plans.
Trump has yet to publicly acknowledge he lost the election to Biden, but his team has been swiftly enacting changes on everything from troop withdrawals to repealing environmental regulations. The administration’s push on immigration is attributed to Stephen Miller, the senior aide who has largely guided the president’s policies on the issue for four years, according to people on both sides of the debate.
“Since taking office, President Trump has never shied away from using his lawful executive authority to advance bold policies and fulfill the promises he made to the American people,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere, who declined to comment on specific actions. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
The flurry of recent immigration changes — primarily made thorough rules, regulations and administration policy — cap nearly four years of reductions in legal and illegal immigration to the United States.
Trump denied visas to citizens of several majority-Muslim nations. He erected more than 400 miles of a 30-feet steel wall along the southern border, much of it a sturdier replacement of what was already there. He sharply limited the granting of asylum claims. And, this year, he used the coronavirus outbreak to slash the number of foreign workers in the U.S. and essentially close the southern border to migrants.
But Trump has failed to fulfil some immigration promises. Perhaps most notably, he has yet to end an Obama-era program that offers work permits to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. Trump tried to wind down the program in his first year, but the Supreme Court rejected his action.
However, a federal judge in Houston who has suggested he agrees with Trump that President Barack Obama overstepped his authority when creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is expected to soon rule on its legality.
“Despite having lost in the courts before and DACA having overwhelming support, we are seeing a full-scale effort by the Trump administration to try to kill DACA on the way out the door, subjecting 700,000 people to deportation and dropping this program on the Senate’s lap,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a group working to protect Dreamers.
Trump made immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, as well as the 2018 midterm elections. But in 2020, he talked less about the issue, in large part because the election was overtaken by the pandemic, which has killed over 265,000 Americans and decimated the economy.
Biden has vowed to undo Trump’s immigration policies and push Congress to craft an immigration deal. The task won’t be simple. In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly tried and failed to enact major overhauls to the immigration system. And any executive action or new law is expected to face legal challenges
And the matter is being complicated further by the Trump administration’s final push to adopt new immigration measures.
Some of the Trump team’s current work is the conclusion of initiatives that has been ongoing for months. Other efforts have been freshly launched post-election. However, any attempts to enact significant new regulations at this point will be hampered by a federal law mandating waiting periods for many major regulatory changes.
Still, Trump’s aides are showing signs of long-term planning. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf just named two new members to an advisory council to help him craft policy — Tom Jenkins, the fire chief in Rogers, Ark., and Catherine Lotrionte, a senior researcher at Georgetown University.
And they’re launching some changes that can be enacted swiftly.
On Nov. 13, the administration announced that starting next month, the citizenship test would include more questions about American history and politics. The revised questionnaire, which received some criticism, will increase from 100 to 128 questions.
Four days later, the administration said it would also give federal officials more discretion in approving an immigration application through updates to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Manual. The changes will provide officers with an expanded list of positive and negative factors they can use to either accept or reject applicants. Administration officials said the new language would make the decisions more consistent and fair, but immigrant advocates said new factors, such as the strength of family ties, history of employment and community standing, will lead to longer processing times and additional denials.
That same day, the administration published a proposed rule that would limit work permits for immigrants awaiting deportation but not in custody.
USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said authorizing work permits to those immigrants “undermines the rule of law and weakens DHS enforcement and removal operations.”
The administration is also trying to push through some even more restrictions to the H-1B high-skilled worker visa program, which it says U.S. employers are abusing to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor.
The update would reduce the types of jobs foreign workers can apply for, while also requiring employers to pay foreign workers more — changes the administration predicted would affect at least a third of H-1B petitions. It also wants to abandon the normal random lottery selection process for the visas, instead prioritizing visa slots for employers offering the highest-paid positions.
Business groups have opposed such changes, but Trump’s hardline base supports them.
Outside groups are pushing the administration to go even further in its final days.
Chris Chmielenski, deputy director at NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions, said he hopes the administration will also limit a program that provides work permits for international students. The administration previously considered the step, but never acted.
“When it comes to the promises the president made before he was elected and even after he was elected, we’d like to see him follow through,” Chmielenski said. “Past administrations have done it. This is something they do.”
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.