Behold the Nation of Immigrants in the 21st Century (And Fear for the Fate of the Republic)

For all the concerns raised about the president’s unpredictability, his knee-jerk attacks on immigrants and refugees track an all-too predictable cycle. A new self-inflicted political crisis explodes that threatens to consume his presidency (“Mueller. Anyone?”); Trump rages about casting blame and vulgar broadsides at favorite targets (MSM, Weak Jeff Sessions, Crying Chuck Schumer); and then he settles into his comfort zone of racially charged, anti-immigrant fear-mongering.

Wash, rinse, repeat . . .

The plodding pace of the legislative process and the institutional constraints imposed by our nation’s separation of powers have frequently frustrated the president’s declared intentions. All too often, his crew of anti-immigration advisers have channeled that frustration into administrative assaults on immigrants and refugees that need no congressional blessing. Those hardline measures, in turn, generate applause from right wing media and create a feedback loop that encourages hotter rhetoric and more aggressive action by the administration. This dynamic is not an accident: as the conservative Weekly Standard reports, the White House communications office actively creates and cultivates this anti-immigration loop.

His speeches from the last few weeks also highlight that the demonization of immigrants will serve as his primary base galvanizing strategy again in 2018. In remarks to a crowd in West Virginia this week, he literally threw away his speech promoting the new tax law in order to revisit his bogus claims about Mexican rapists and massive immigrant voter fraud. As we’ve seen over the last three years, his go-to move for base activation is to trigger legitimate social and economic anxieties and focus all blame on the terrifying, criminal “other.”

While this cycle of fury and distraction should no longer surprise anyone, the scale and breadth of the administration’s recent assault on immigrants and refugees should alarm everyone. As Trump has finally internalized that he got outplayed by Democrats on the omnibus bill and that he lost his last, best chance to fund his big, beautiful wall, he has trained his wrath on immigrants with renewed vigor.

The U.S.-Mexico border as seen from Texas. Photo by Barbara Kinney, courtesy Emerson Collective.
“Sowing fear, anger, and division in communities across the country appears to be the central objective.”

Many of the policies and practices that his top advisors and unleashed agents are pursuing serve no legitimate public purpose. To the contrary, the breathtaking cruelty of some measures and the calculated disempowering effect of others, actively subvert core American values of decency, compassion, and pragmatism. The sheer volume of new initiatives makes it hard to digest the full extent and impact of the attacks. But sowing fear, anger, and division in communities across the country appears to be the central objective.

This recent onslaught carries us into dangerous territory. Not only does it threaten the lives and stability of our neighbors, friends, and families; the intentional stoking of group anger and division imperils liberal democracy’s foundations. Cultivating social and economic grievances of the majority by vilifying a vulnerable minority rises straight from the populist playbook.

The string of troubling developments compiled below from just the last few weeks must not be viewed as egregious, isolated policies. They should be understood as special ingredients in a toxic nationalist brew that threatens to poison our belief in and commitment to core democratic values and individual rights. As my colleague Frank Sharry lays out in a must read piece, the antidote lies in the more powerful vision contained in our founding documents, one grounded in “shared ideas and ideals, not blood and soil.”

A Return to Mass Worksite Raids

Last Thursday, DHS conducted a large scale raid on a meatpacking plant in Tennessee, leading to the arrest of 97 immigrants, 86 of whom had no criminal violations. This type of shock and awe enforcement action that leaves kids stranded and communities decimated became normalized at the end of President George W. Bush’s years but was abandoned by President Obama. The Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tom Homan, promised that this would be the new normal and that every undocumented immigrant should be looking over their shoulders. Translation: ICE intends to systematically and unapologetically sow terror in communities.

California’s $45 billion agriculture industry depends on immigrant farmworkers. Photo by Matt Black.

Terminating Discretion at the Border

Attorney General Sessions — the Administration’s most extreme immigration hard liner — ordered DOJ’s prosecutors to adopt a zero tolerance policy regarding immigration offenses. Mandating the detention and prosecution of everyone at the border will trigger criminal prosecution and prolonged mandatory detention for families fleeing untold violence and persecution.

On the same day as the Sessions order, President Trump issued a presidential proclamation ordering the acceleration of all steps necessary to end the practice pejoratively known as “catch and release.” The proclamation requires DHS and DOD to evaluate current capacity and assess new options, including the use of military facilities, to address the increase in jail space that the policy will require. Not only will these policies (and the administration’s broader border obsession) lead to new humanitarian crises, they also represent a gross abuse of taxpayer resources.

No legitimate argument can be made for bringing the full weight of the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense to bear on asylum seeking families rather than focusing on serious threats to our country and communities.

Military at the Border

In another effort to stoke anti-immigrant fears and a national bunker mentality, Trump announced that he will be sending National Guard troops to the border — assuming the border governors agree. Secretary Mattis has authorized 4,000 national guardsmen to be paid to “protect the border” through September. This comes despite the fact that attempted border crossings are at a 47-year low. Per calculations by a colleague at the Center for American Progress, each Border Patrol guard currently arrests approximately 1 individual every 17 days. Not exactly the type of workload crying out for the cavalry.

(While presidents Bush and Obama both deployed limited numbers of national guardsmen, the circumstances were dramatically different. Bush sent them when crossings were at an all-time high in 2006; Obama supplemented those after a violent episode and under withering demands from Republicans to secure the border and in the hopes of securing broader reform. Both initiatives were deeply objectionable despite the rationales, but neither was done merely in service of a campaign agenda.)

Separation of Families

In an effort to deter families from seeking asylum, DHS has adopted the practice of separating families at the border. Their goal is to encourage families to drop their asylum claims and to discourage other families from coming. The ACLU successfully challenged the separation of a Congolese mother-daughter unit last month but the practice continues. DHS has been contemplating issuance of a more formal policy but it is not clear how they will proceed in the wake of the ACLU litigation. Cruelty is apparently no bar to achieving their objective of blocking asylum seekers from seeking protection in the United States.

Jose Patino is one of four siblings with DACA status; he will lose his status to legally live and work in February 2019. Photo by Barbara Kinney, courtesy Emerson Collective.

Terminating Protections for Liberians

Building on its termination of temporary protected status for Haitians, Salvadorans, and other countries, the administration announced it was rescinding Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status for 4,000 Liberians. DED is another discretionary tool used to enable certain nationals to lawfully remain in the U.S. when conditions in the home country are precarious. This move is another case of the administration rescinding legal status (see, e.g., the DACA rescission and the TPS designation terminations) from long-term immigrants who have built lives here and become deeply integrated into local economies and communities. No public policy interest is served by these community-destabilizing decisions.

Detention of Pregnant Women

DHS revealed at the end of March that it had changed its policies last December regarding the detention of pregnant women in immigration jails. Under prior agency guidance during the Obama administration, pregnant women were presumptively eligible to be released from detention absent extraordinary circumstances. Setting aside the inhumanity and recklessness of the new policy, the justification for the move provides the clearest evidence of the administration’s commitment to a mass deportation strategy. DHS made clear in its explanation of the decision that it was completely in line with its policy of prioritizing every single undocumented immigrant for removal, regardless of their equities or circumstances — now including pregnant women with no criminal record.

Eliminating Basic Economic Supports

Since 1996, immigrants have been barred from obtaining any federal means-tested public benefits. And if an immigrant is likely to become a “public charge” or dependent on cash “welfare” or long-term care, they can be denied legal permanent residence or, if already here, subject to removal. A new leaked regulation indicates the administration’s intention to revise the public charge definition and consider a much broader array of disqualifying factors like use of earned income credits, health care insurance subsidies, nutrition assistance, early care, and education supports (like school lunch) even if those supports are used by U.S. citizen dependents.

This, combined with the array of other threats, has already led eligible immigrants to avoid enrolling in essential programs like SNAP and Medicaid, not to mention the stream of reports we have received about parents not bringing kids in for medical appointments, drops in student attendance, etc. The net and intended result will be: poorer, hungrier, sicker kids and families; fewer lower-income family-based immigrants admitted; and more working-class immigrants being targeted for removal.

Quotas for Immigration Judges

AG Sessions has set a quota that means judges will be punished if they fail to close at least 700 cases per year, forcing them to expedite life-or-death decisions for administrative convenience. As the President of the National Association of Immigration Judges highlights, the only metric that should guide a judge is the fair and neutral adjudication of every case that comes before them. Arbitrary case completion requirements for judges that are already overstretched and under-resourced highlights this DOJ’s deep disdain for due process and the fair treatment of immigrants. This is certain to result in more arbitrariness and injustice in a system already rife with both.

Certification of Asylum Cases

Under the immigration rules, the Attorney General is authorized to “certify” cases to himself in order to issue binding, precedential rulings on how certain claims should be decided. Sessions has certified a number of cases already that signal his intent to preclude immigration judges from exercising discretion by, among other things, administratively closing cases — a practice adopted by judges in the interest of fairness and/or judicial efficiency.

But most concerning is the case he has certified to decide whether anyone seeking asylum based on membership in a particular social group who is the “victim of private criminal activity merits relief.” This could restrict asylum for DV victims, LGBTQ individuals, “targets of gang violence, and victims of human trafficking.”

Abandoning Refugee Resettlement

There are currently more than 65 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons — that is the highest number on record. Despite that, the president set the annual number of refugees authorized to be resettled in the U.S. in FY18 at the historically low level of 45,000. (By contrast, in FY16, the ceiling was set at 85K; in FY17, the ceiling was set at 110K.) As of March 31, halfway through the fiscal year, actual admissions just reached 10K, meaning the U.S. is on track to settle less than 20K, an unconscionable abdication of moral responsibility.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at San Francisco International Airport in response to the Muslim Ban in January 2017. Photo by Barbara Kinney courtesy Emerson Collective.

Slashing Visas

In addition to choking off the admission of refugees, over the last 12 months the number of visitor visas issued has dropped by 13% and the number of F-1 student visas has dropped by 17% (enrollment in 2017 was down about 7%). It appears to be a combination of more denials and fewer applications given the unwelcoming face we are presenting to the world. Unsurprisingly, given Trump’s effort to implement a Muslim ban, the steepest declines in issuance and admissions have been to applicants from Muslim majority countries. But Haiti, Venezuela, and China also saw significant drops in the numbers of visas issued.

Subverting the Census

The Commerce Department has included a question about citizenship on the census for the first time in 70 years. They added this question pursuant to a request from the Justice Department. The undeniable goal of including this question is to chill participation in the decennial count by immigrant communities; the inexorable result will be the undercounting of communities of color which will carry national, state, and local reverberations. The impact will be felt in everything from federal and state apportionment and redistricting, to the allocation of dollars to state and local funding of basic services, to business planning for companies large and small.

The end goal — and likely result if current legal challenges fail — will be a loss of political power for diverse communities in furtherance of white nationalism’s desperate power grab.

Criminalizing Immigrants

Trump’s tweets and speeches continue to paint the picture of immigrants as bringing crime and mayhem to communities across the country, going so far as to blame immigrants for the opioid crisis. He recently convened a “roundtable” of extremists on the issue of “sanctuary cities” which was heavy on fire and brimstone and light on facts. Ironically, this took place just before the release of the most definitive study yet demonstrating that the only impact immigration may have on crime is to lower it (on top of a plethora of studies showing that both legal and undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower levels than native born Americans).

Introducing Harsh New Enforcement Legislation

The White House announced that it is developing new legislation designed to eliminate “loopholes” in our “weak” laws. This will likely include a mix of provisions introduced previously as part of House Judiciary Chairman Goodlatte’s comprehensive anti-immigration bill. It will almost certainly target vulnerable asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors, while ramping up mandatory detention and other punitive measures.


The nativist extremism reflected in these manic attacks challenges bedrock values and demands a response by all Americans who believe in tolerance, diversity, and community. It is easy to be complacent and believe that because we have confronted bigger crises before, this too shall pass. But if we abide the politics of division and accept the cruelty of indifference, policies like those outlined above will continue to proliferate. If we walk much further down this path, I fear that our country will become unrecognizable both to us and the world.

Marshall Fitz is Managing Director of Immigration Policy at Emerson Collective.