President Donald Trump has systematically engineered a major crackdown on immigration during his first 100 days in office — even as courts reject his executive orders and Congress nears a spending deal that will deny him funding for a wall along the southern border.
The number of arrests on the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted in March to the lowest level in 17 years — a strong suggestion that Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric is scaring away foreigners who might otherwise try to enter the United States illegally. In addition, part of a lesser-knownthat Trump signed in January gave federal immigration agents broad leeway to arrest virtually any undocumented immigrant they encounter.
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Granted, Trump’s splashiest immigration promises — the border wall and two successive bans on immigrants from various majority-Muslim nations — have been stymied by Congress and the courts. And Tuesday, Trump received another setback when a district court judge blocked a directive denying federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to help enforce federal immigration laws.
But the president has nonetheless reshaped the nation’s immigration policy substantially.
“Even without putting down one single brick,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors lower immigration levels, “Trump has dramatically altered the flow across the southern border.”
Businesses that use foreign workers, worried they’ll get singled out by federal agents during a visa review, are starting to explore the possibility of recruiting domestic labor. Trump’s enforcement policies are affecting higher education, too, with early signs suggesting foreign students are less likely to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. Nearly 40 percent of colleges and universities surveyed by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officersin international applications, and almost 80 percent said they fielded particular concerns from students in the Middle East. International students are, among other things, an important source of revenue for colleges, since typically they pay sticker price on tuition and fees.
To longtime advocates for undocumented immigrants, the change is less about numbers than about who’s being targeted.
“They’ve really changed the priorities from really going after the bad hombres to going after grandpas and people who have no criminal records whatsoever,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). “In essence, they’ve put fear and panic in the immigrant community.”
The interior enforcement executive order that Trump signed during his first week in office dumped the Obama administration’s practice of prioritizing the arrests of serious criminals — a policy that allowed low-level immigration offenders to fly below the radar.
“The agents that I’ve talked to over the past few months have said that they feel that they can go out and enforce the law again, whereas they had many limitations on them over the past eight years,” said John Torres, chief operating officer at the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions and acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the George W. Bush administration. “If they encounter someone who is out of status, even though they are not targeting that person, they can now take them into custody.”
Early numbers reflect that shift. ICE arrested 21,362 immigrants from January through mid-March, a 32 percent increase over the same period last year. That tally included 5,441 non-criminals, double the number arrested a year earlier.
Trump, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have all argued that the administration will target serious criminals first. But a steady stream of reports have shown otherwise.
An Ohio woman with four U.S. citizen children was recentlyto Mexico, despite the fact that she had been in the U.S. for 15 years and had no criminal record. Earlier this month, an Indiana restaurant owner with three U.S. citizen children, a two-decade history in the country, and no criminal record also was to Mexico.
“What’s really interesting here is how much of the difference seems to be rhetorical,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who was domestic policy director to former President Barack Obama. “By talking tough, they have unleashed officers who now feel like they can do whatever they want.”
The threat of deportation even hangs over Dreamers in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That initiative, enacted by Obama in 2012, allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age to apply for deportation relief and work permits.
More than 770,000 peopleunder DACA, which Trump threatened to kill during the campaign. Since taking office, he’s backed off on that pledge — yet infuriated immigration advocates say the administration’s enforcement tactics show Dreamers are in no way safe from deportation.
Earlier this month, Juan Manuel Montes, a DACA recipient who had lived in California,a lawsuit that claimed he was deported to Mexico despite his DACA status, the first known removal of its kind under the new administration. The facts of the case remain in dispute — DHS maintains that it has no record of the deportation in question and insists Montes left the U.S. without permission, which would invalidate his DACA protections.
Democrats say Trump’s reluctance to rescind the Obama-era initiative has been a rare silver lining to the new administration’s immigration policy. Still, they are by no means assured, pointing to the ramped-up enforcement by immigration agents across the nation.
“It fails to dispel the fear,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, noting the Montes deportation. “There’s just a variety of ways where the fear can be paralyzing and so insidious. So to have some clear, unambiguous system is so important, and it has been so lacking.”
Caught in the congressional crossfire over Trump’s deportation tactics is Kelly. The Homeland chief was confirmed overwhelmingly by the Senate but has since fallen out of favor with many Democratic lawmakers amid disputes over enforcement tactics.
“I’m extremely disappointed in Secretary Kelly,” said Menendez, who voted to confirm him in January. “I have buyer’s remorse.”
Congressional Republicans have been quieter about the new enforcement policies, but even some GOP lawmakers say they have questions about some deportation targets.
“The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with enforcing the laws as written, and for the most part, that’s what they’re doing,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said. “Now, could you point to specific instances here or there where there have been some decisions made on the ground by the officials enforcing the law that you would have some questions about? Yes.”
The administration’s aggressive approach has also disrupted some K-12 schools, most notably after a father was arrested while dropping his daughter off at a charter school in Los Angeles. Kelly and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have since said that the administration isn’t targeting students and that it won’t raid schools.
The Trump administration has also taken on certain types of legal immigration. The president signed an executive order last week that singles out the H-1B guest worker program, which allows companies to hire specialized foreign workers temporarily. Trump’s executive order, which called for a review of all employment visa programs, precipitated no immediate action. But the number of petitions for H-1B visasby 16 percent this year, the first decrease in five years.
“We’ve studied the statute and what the president can do on his own, and I think he’s done about all he can do,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “But I think it’s going to be very effective.” Grassley is cosponsor, with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, of a bill to reform the program, which has drawn bipartisan criticism for allowing businesses to fire skilled U.S. workers and replace them with contract H-1B labor. The Trump administration has, so far, not backed the Grassley-Durbin, nor a corresponding bipartisan on the House side.
The president has also rattled a saber at sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. In his interior enforcement, Trump said federal grants should be withheld from cities and counties that refuse to share information related to immigration status.
Many cities vowed to battle Trump over the threat — and a federal judge in San Franciscothe policy nationwide on Tuesday. Still, a handful of others had relented before the ruling — a quick victory for the administration with little energy expended.
Just days after Trump signed the order in January, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered county jails to comply with federal “detainer requests” that ask local officials to hold a suspected undocumented immigrant for up to 48 hours beyond the individual’s release time. Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said a fear of losing funding and the possibility of public shaming may have spurred on the change.
“Trump was coming up with maps and putting names of cities and counties on his naughty list,” he said.
Muñoz acknowledges that some Trump supporters will see diminished interest in visiting the U.S. as a victory, but she stressed that people who come from abroad — as students, tourists and workers — all contribute to the economic vitality of the U.S.
“You could argue this administration is actively trying to make the United States a less attractive place to come, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for people from anywhere,” she said. “In the end, that can’t be good for us.”
Benjamin Wermund contributed to this report.
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