The Shadow War to Reshape the Face of America

By Carlos Guevara, UnidosUS Senior Policy Advisor

“Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.” — PSAS Report, April 2017

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this year, the key motivator underlying Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in the 2016 election was the feeling among white Americans that they were losing ground to other groups. Trump tapped into that white resentment — launching his presidential bid with disparaging remarks about Mexicans, saying, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” — and rode it all the way to the Republican nomination and the White House. Now, in advance of key midterm elections, it appears that he is doubling down on his incendiary rhetoric targeting immigrants of color.

But it’s not just empty talk by Trump. He’s got a long and storied history of racial animus toward people of color. Backed by fellow hardline ethnonationalists like Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions, he’s actively pursuing a retrograde fantasy of making America whiter by trying to end family migration and the diversity visa program. Enacting such policies would effectively keep out Latino, Muslim, and African immigrants.

Much of the criticism of the Trump administration’s harsh immigration agenda has focused on its draconian and untethered approach to interior enforcement, its indiscriminate targeting of undocumented and documented immigrants alike, and the ways in which it has harmed many American families. But his policies are nothing if not prejudicial: Pew Research estimates that Latinos make up about 76 percent of the undocumented population, but according to the most recent government data, over 93 percent of those deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are Latino.

In other words, an undocumented Latino immigrant is more than 20 percent more likely to be deported than her non-Latino counterpart. For good reason, then, some see ICE as the tip of the spear for the administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.

Yet, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. It might well be another agency with significant jurisdiction over immigration matters — the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) — that ends up having the most lasting and damaging impact on the diversity and composition of the country.

Quietly, previously marginalized opponents of legal immigration have been given new life and prominence within the Trump administration. Today, many of them work in, oversee, or have a direct link to USCIS, and those hardliners won’t be satisfied with slashing legal immigration, so they are also looking for new ways to torment anyone (with the wrong skin color) who was not born here, including authorized immigrants and even naturalized citizens, in order to strip their legal status and force them to leave the country.

RESUSCITATED LEGAL IMMIGRATION HAWKS SCORE EARLY WIN

The idea of restricting legal immigration levels is not new. Conversations and debates about reducing the number of green cards and temporary visas issued has come up in almost every legislative effort to reform our immigration system during the last 20 years.

But it was generally part of a broader and deeper discussion premised on a baseline understanding that the great societal and economic benefits of immigration — and the potential benefits of awarding citizenship — outweighed the costs in other areas, such as legalization and border and interior enforcement. It’s one thing to reduce the number of family-based visas for siblings of American citizens, for example, when that proposal is part of a larger package that clears obscenely long visa backlogs or provides legalization for certain longtime residents (i.e., those currently shielded from removal under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy or the Temporary Protected Status program). It’s another thing entirely to seek those cuts for capricious reasons.

Yet that’s precisely the direction in which the administration has moved during the past year. It all started with a marker bill — that is, a piece of legislation that’s not meant to be adopted but is submitted for the sake of putting an idea on the table. It was introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and called the RAISE Act. The bill proposed slicing legal immigration to the U.S. by at least half. If enacted, it would have terrible long-term consequences for our nation’s economy, not the least of which would be destroying key social safety-net programs like Social Security. Also, had the bill been law when President Trump’s own grandfather and his future wife Melania came to the United States, both would have lacked enough “points” to make the cut.

What’s most notable about the RAISE Act — which had the full backing of the Trump administration — is that it expanded the focus of the immigration-policy debate from “unauthorized” immigrants to legal immigrants, particularly Latinos. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the bill’s aim was not only to cut overall immigration levels, but to dramatically tilt the racial demographic of those admitted to the U.S. This would be accomplished by significantly reducing family migration and reunification of Latinos and Asians in favor of white people from countries like Norway, as the President has professed to prefer over those from “shit-hole countries.”

The introduction of the RAISE Act might well mark a tipping point that we’ll reflect on during future comprehensive immigration-reform conversations as having changed the way this issue is addressed.

DACA recipients — over 90 percent of whom happen to be Latino — have so far been the leading casualties of this new focus on legal immigration. At least five bipartisan DACA compromises have been rejected by the Trump White House, which insists that aspects of the RAISE Act — cleverly repackaged as soundbites like “merit-based,” “chain migration,” “protecting nuclear families,” and “four pillars” — be a part of any solution.

For all the President’s grousing (and dubious claims) about the need for a border wall, more ICE agents and detention beds, and against sanctuary cities, this early triumph of the legal immigration hawks is the reason why hundreds of thousands of immigrant youths still find themselves in legal limbo 10 months after President Trump ended DACA last fall.

USCIS: THE BLUNT INSTRUMENT OF CHOICE?

What’s more, with immigration talks at an impasse in Congress, the White House is furtively and single-handedly making back-door administrative changes to our nation’s legal immigration system. It’s doing this in three ways — via policy changes, revising long-standing norms and rules, and imposing new regulations. Some changes have been largely superficial, such as when earlier this year the USCIS dropped the phrase, “nation of immigrants,” from the agency’s mission statement, which drew the ire of immigration advocates and the public, who rightfully saw the omission as an affront to our core American values.

Other changes, like the administration’s decision to swipe legal protections away from more than one million documented individuals, which was either directly cleared by USCIS leadership (in the case of TPS) or based on input agency officials gave to the White House (in the case of DACA) have had a seismic effect on millions of people.

Those impacted were, by definition “documented,” that is legally authorized to be in the United States but lack an independent pathway to a green card under our current laws. Beginning in fall 2018, over 300,000 TPS holders — Sudanese, Haitians, Salvadorans, Liberians, and Hondurans — will start losing their legal status. Of course, they all happen to be people of color.

USCIS has also been quietly restricting who can secure green cards by changing the way existing rules have been implemented. The press has observed that Trump officials at USCIS are making it more difficult and expensive for foreign students, skilled temporary workers, and those seeking humanitarian protections under our laws to enter the U.S. legally. Meanwhile, recent reports reveal that USCIS intends to establish an internal-affairs division to oversee agency caseworkers who are deemed too “lenient,” prompting some Senators to question the motives behind this division’s creation, its impact on USCIS caseworkers, and the compounding effect it could have on already unacceptably long case-processing times.

These are classic examples of a “gum up the works” strategy that’s clearly designed to prevent eligible people from getting visas. What’s more, the agency is trying to move into the immigration enforcement business. Recently, USCIS issued guidance that would allow it to initiate deportation proceedings. It’s also looking to use USCIS funds for ICE enforcement operations.

Moreover, USCIS caseworkers have been ordered to “more closely” scrutinize applications made by U.S. citizens and green card holders on behalf of their family members under the false pretense of curbing “fraud and abuse.” Last August, the agency announced it would phase in new interview requirements for individuals applying for green cards, including employers petitioning for workers and U.S. citizens applying on behalf of their fiancés. Reuters reports that, thanks to this subtle shift, the number of immigrants approved by USCIS for extended family visas in fiscal year 2017 plunged to its lowest level since 2000.

At a time when the Trump White House is vowing to shrink the administrative state and scores of federal agency positions remain unfilled, it is noteworthy that there is no shortage of resources available to advance its ethnocentric vision. Look no further than USCIS, which plans to hire dozens of lawyers and immigration officers to staff a recently announced denaturalization taskforce.

What appears to connect these seemingly disparate positions and actions is a warped worldview. It has been espoused by USCIS head L. Francis Cissna, who said, “Those people are just coming in based on connection to a family member. That lack of selectivity; it takes us away from where we want to go as a country.”

Who are “those people” exactly? They’re the children and siblings of American citizens, and the spouses and children of green-card holders. Not coincidentally, the majority of those adversely affected are from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

A BACKDOOR RAISE ACT?

But that’s not all. An often-underreported way administrations leave a lasting mark on the country is by issuing new regulations. USCIS’s legal-immigration restrictionists have been busy on that front, too; their fingerprints are all over the regulatory agenda. Their latest, most pernicious rule proposal takes clear aim at legal immigrants who are living and working in the U.S. (along with their family members, U.S.-citizen children included).

One of the factors that immigration authorities have historically considered when reviewing visa applications is whether candidates have the means to support themselves. Those who don’t may be deemed a “public charge,” which can count as a strike against their application being approved. Under current rules, mainly those who get more than half their income from cash assistance programs — e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — or Medicaid long-term care benefits may be deemed dependent on the government or a “public charge.”

In fact, for obvious and sensible public-health reasons, the existing guidelines were expressly designed to “reduce the negative public health consequences generated by [then] existing confusion around the meaning of public charge” and to ensure immigrant families were not deterred from seeking temporary non-cash public assistance such as health care and nutrition assistance.

Until now, that is.

On March 28, 2018, The Washington Post reported details of a leaked proposal that would target decent, hard-working immigrants (and their families) in low-wage jobs by greatly expanding the “public charge” criteria to include participation in non-cash assistance programs. This includes programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Women, Infants and Children (WIC); the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); and the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and housing or home-energy assistance — all services, by the way, that many authorized immigrants are legally entitled to by virtue of substantial work (and, by extension, taxpayer) histories.

Non-cash health and nutrition assistance programs are specifically designed to prevent destitution and provide families with critical support services to help them make ends meet. Non-cash assistance programs keep millions out of poverty, including millions of U.S.-citizen children who live with an immigrant parent. Consider that in the context of Latino families — many of whom stand to be significantly impacted by the proposed rule — SNAP, Medicaid and housing assistance lifted 6.3 million Latinos above the poverty line in 2015, including three million Latino children.

The proposed rule would not actually bar legal immigrants from using those services, while unauthorized immigrants are already ineligible. But, if approved, it could subject them to punitive income tests that, incredibly, require a family of three to earn over $52,000 annually, or a family of four to earn over $62,000 annually, in order to petition for a close family member, such as a parent who could help care for an infant. It could also deny many who have been waiting for years for their visas to clear the backlogs a chance to gain permanent residency themselves.

The rule could also force millions of Latino and immigrant families to make painful tradeoffs and likely lead many of them to forego benefits. If the rule becomes final, will an individual with a pathway to permanent residency think twice about applying for SNAP or CHIP for their U.S.-citizen child, lest that cost them their shot at a green card?

Never mind that going without food or adequate health care is detrimental to their children’s well-being, and that compelling people to do so is inhumane. It’s worth remembering, Trump calls them “animals,” not people.

Never mind that most public-assistance recipients are white and native-born, or that immigrants pay taxes because facts are often lost on this administration and its supporters. What is a horrifying realization about a sitting President of the United States is that Trump appears to loathe Latinos and Blacks (and he seems to want others to loathe them, too, so he can exploit that hatred); he wants to punish immigrants of color by forcing them to choose between staying here with family and taking care of their own health and that of their kids. If allowed to stand, the proposed regulation change would give the Trump administration a powerful new weapon in its ongoing assault on immigrants, particularly those of color. In 2016 (the last year for which there was available data), nearly 44 percent of those who met the green-card eligibility requirements were from Latin American countries, and another 48 percent were from Asia and Africa.

We need to dispense with the lie that the administration’s immigration agenda is intended to protect Americans and American jobs from invading immigrant hordes (they don’t exist). The Trump administration’s actual intent seems to be to inflict harm, and his administration is persecuting citizens, legal immigrants and peaceful migrants of color who are fleeing horrific violence; it’s terrorizing children and putting them in cages and then lying about what they’ve done.

And, the quiet assault on the legal immigration system happening at USCIS belies the cover story that it is only seeking to protect our borders from illegal immigration.

As of this writing, the public-charge rule is still making its way through the agency review process. While the rule has not been finalized, organizations like UnidosUS are already learning of eligible families avoiding critical health and nutrition-assistance programs based on misinformation about the rule being in place (it isn’t) and a fear that accessing benefits could jeopardize their ability to remain in the U.S. permanently.

It’s hard not to wonder if that fear is exactly what the White House wanted all along.