We tracked Trump’s immigration assault for 200+ weeks — what now?

A look back, what to expect next, and some exciting news about Migratory Notes.

Daniela Gerson
Jan 15 · 11 min read

President Trump will be remembered for sowing chaos by dismantling an already broken U.S. immigration system with an unprecedented use of executive authority. Migratory Notes tracked that trajectory in 195 newsletters.

For the past three years we published an annual roundup of standout stories. This year we did something different. We identified stories that show how the Trump administration, under top aide Stephen Miller’s guidance, attacked the system, some of the unanticipated results, and what President-elect Joe Biden has promised to do next.

As you may know, Migratory Notes launched during Trump’s first week of office as a pop-up newsletter to make sense of the frenzied coverage of the travel ban. We quickly learned there was a need for informed curation of immigration news and resources. We are happy to share that we plan to keep providing this service, and that we plan on growing. If you are new, you can subscribe here, and readers, stay tuned for new ways to connect with Migratory Notes in 2021, including via a partnership with Internews supporting immigration journalism.

Protesters at LAX, speak out against the travel ban. Photo by Konrad Fiedler

Travel Ban: ‘This is Working Out Very Nicely’

The so-called Muslim Ban went into effect at about 5 p.m. on the first Friday of Trump’s presidency. Chaos and confusion ensued. Travelers and protesters descended on American airports. In Africa, refugees who had been waiting their turn to enter the U.S. for years learned that they were no longer welcome. An army of lawyers were activated, who would relentlessly take on the Trump administration.

The travel ban also triggered a rush to the border — the Canadian border. A modern-day underground railroad materialized in New York for asylum seekers looking to escape. Minnesota became another gateway for African refugees headed north. A library straddling the border between Vermont and Quebec provided a safe space for Iranian loved ones stuck in neighboring countries, looking to reconnect.

→ Since the courts struck down the first travel ban, revised versions have emerged, followed by dozens of court cases. Biden has vowed to revoke the travel ban from Muslim and African countries on Day 1 in office.

Stephen Miller’s yearbook page from Santa Monica High School.

Department of Intimidation

Stephen Miller weaponized the Department of Homeland Security and sharpened the tactics and language of enforcement. ICE agents arrested immigrants at routine check-ins, courthouses, and while dropping off kids at school. Even Motel 6 was reporting undocumented guests to ICE.

Trump went from calling DACA participants “incredible kids” to canceling the program in 2017. (Ultimately stopped by a Supreme Court ruling).

Yet, despite these high-profile actions, deportations under Trump actually were far below Obama administration levels, in part because of sanctuary state restrictions. Intimidation and uncertainty was wielded as a tactic, but the threatened actions did not always materialize, such as the 2019 much-hyped immigration raids.

While immigration activists and progressives in the Democratic Party have called for defunding ICE, Biden has provided no indication that he will do so. He has promised to provide permanent legal status to DACA recipients via legislation, and an executive order to expand the program should be expected as well in the first days of his administration.

White nationalists promptly seized upon Trump’s line “Americans are Dreamers too” in his 2018 State of the Union, tweeting it out with images of blond families.

Trump Let Employers Off the Hook — Including Himself

While targeting immigrants was a top priority, employers tended to get a pass, a long-standing American practice. This time, that extended to President Trump. A maid who scrubbed Trump’s toilet and dusted his crystal golf trophies was one of many undocumented immigrants employed at his golf course in New Jersey. After the news broke, Trump’s company quietly laid off foreign workers who served dinner or baked pastries at Mar-a-Lago and drove tractors and pruned vines at his Virginia winery.

By September 2019, symbolic workplace arrests had skyrocketed, but those of managers remained essentially flat. That year the Trump administration presided over the largest single-state raid in history, in which more than 600 poultry workers in Mississippi were arrested. Nearly a year later four managers were indicted.

→ Biden’s campaign website says he “will restore the focus on abusive employers instead of on the vulnerable workers they are exploiting,” but lacks a clear plan for how he will pursue bosses.

An asylum seeker in Tijuana holds up her number in line. Photo by Monica Campbell

Asylum Denied

Asylum seekers faced a Trump administration that systematically reduced their opportunity of gaining admittance to the U.S., both via the courts and stopping them at the actual border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally rolled back years of case law to eliminate grounds for protection such as domestic or gang violence. By 2020, asylum rejection rates in court increased to more than 70%. Outcomes fluctuated hugely by nationality: 23% of Chinese were denied compared with 87% of Hondurans.

As the number of mostly Central American asylum hopefuls, some who had arrived in closely watched caravans, grew on the border, conditions deteriorated on both sides. Agencies from across DHS tracked and impeded travel for journalists and activists connected to the caravans.

Many asylum seekers languished in shelters that became akin to refugee camps. Others slept outside, in a holding pen under a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico, covered with nothing but mylar silver blankets. In Tijuana, a handwritten list governed who was next in line to seek asylum.

By the time the Trump administration launched the Remain in Mexico program in 2019, forcing tens of thousands more asylum seekers to wait in dangerous border Mexican cities for their court dates, the door was almost entirely shut. Later that year, the U.S. began shipping asylum seekers to Guatemala often without telling them where they were going.

During the campaign, Biden promised to end Remain in Mexico on his first day in office, but he has since changed that timeline, instead only committing to ending the program “quickly.” He also promised to restore the asylum process at the southern border, but as caravans begin to grow incoming administration officials still cautioned migrants against falsely believing the program would reopen quickly.

Mariee Juarez died shortly after being released from ICE custody in 2018. Her mother filed a wrongful death claim against the U.S. government. Photo via Arnold & Porter

Families Torn Apart

As Trump hardened the border, parents with a child or more started arriving in unprecedented numbers seeking asylum. All were looking for a better life; some brought their children because, historically, families had a better chance of avoiding detention and deportation.

The Trump administration responded with a brutal “zero tolerance” policy, separating children from their parents. A 4-month-old baby from Romania was among the first to be separated, in February 2018. Four months later, the desperate cries recorded inside a CBP facility of a persistent 6-year-old girl from El Salvador begging for her aunt as other terrified children cried around her for their parents ricocheted around the world.

Many separated children were sent to private youth shelters working under government contracts. In some, they faced drunk employees, sexual assault and the forced administration of heavy psychotropic drugs that left them “hypnotized.” At least seven Central American kids died in U.S. custody, including Carlos Vasquez, whose final hours were caught on a surveillance camera.

Family separation as a policy formally ended in June 2018, but the government has continued to take advantage of a legal loophole to separate parents from children. Without a government reunification plan or well-kept records, parents of more than 500 children still have not been located.

→ Biden said he will create a task force to reunite separated families, but immigrant activists are urging him to go further by promising to provide a legal immigration pathway and victims’ fund.

The attacker who killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2019 issued a statement against HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” Image credit: HIAS

Immigration System on the Brink

A surge in asylum seekers, the Trump administration’s crackdown on the border and interior arrests put unprecedented pressure on immigration courts, leading to a backlog of more than 1 million immigration cases by early 2020 and instilling chaos in the system.

Trump’s directive to rush immigration judges to the border created chaotic proceedings in improvised courtrooms and featured mass trials.

When COVID-19 hit, the decision to keep courts open put deportation numbers over the safety of employees. At the same time, lawyers lamented the growth of the virtual hearings that were already in use, but became even more common during the pandemic and led to fewer of their clients receiving asylum.

Biden has promised to ease the burden on the immigration court system by sending more asylum officers to the border.

The French artist JR installed this work on the Mexico side of the border.

The Big, Beautiful Wall

Trump quickly set to work carrying out his campaign promise of building “a big, beautiful wall,” but his execution was much smaller than his vision. When Trump refused to accept that Congress did not grant him the $5.7 billion he wanted for border construction in late 2018, he sent the government into a partial shutdown, an unprecedented act that undermined legislators’ authority. In the final weeks in office, Trump sped up construction to meet his goal of building 450 miles of border barriers by the end of his term. In the process, he seized 5,000 parcels of property. But many miles already existed in a less substantial form, and the wall is far short of the nearly 1,000 miles Trump promised in 2015.

→ Biden said he won’t build another foot of wall; stopping construction could save taxpayers $2.6 billion.

A drummer at April 10’s #AZFreeThemAll protest in front of La Palma Prison’s ICE detention facility in Arizona. Photo by Ash Ponders, a member of Juntos Photo Coop.

COVID: A Health Crisis Hits Immigrants Hardest

The pandemic exposed the scope of the precarious state of immigrants in the U.S., particularly those who are undocumented. Many farmworkers were given “essential worker” papers, but they also died in obscurity, absent from lists of COVID victims or workplace safety records.

ICE continued to detain, transfer and deport migrants as the pandemic raged, making the agency a national and global spreader of COVID-19 and creating a testing disaster. Officials sent dozens of detainees exposed to COVID-19 to solitary confinement. Salvadoran immigrant Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia was the first known COVID death of an ICE detainee and those detained with him said officials did not take his condition seriously. An elderly Canadian man died in ICE custody after ICE detained him upon release from prison, a decision it could have used its discretion to avoid. Lawyers again took to the courts, demanding the release of immigrant detainees.

And Trump’s goal of slamming shut the border was finally realized. When the pandemic hit, the U.S. started a policy of rapid expulsions, turning away even children who presented themselves at the border, seeking asylum, and almost every migrant caught after illegally entering the United States.

Biden will likely keep the border closed for months to come. He has said he will release more migrants from detention and instead rely on tracking programs to ensure they show up for court.

The Reckoning to Come

Trump failed to stop the growth of immigration and its impact on the U.S. population — an irreversible course to the nation becoming ever more diverse and more dependent on immigrants and their children. More is to come. A bleak climate future awaits the planet and migration is expected to substantially increase. In the most extreme scenarios, experts say more than 30 million migrants could head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.

The Biden administration is planning a combination of executive actions and introducing legalization legislation, that notably does not include enforcement measures. The initial flurry of actions will be able to roll back, at least during this administration, some of the Trump measures. To create more lasting change will require the tenacity to push through a change to immigration laws for the first time in 35 years.

Thank you for reading Migratory Notes, sending your tips and ideas for the past four years! We love connecting with our readers and learning how you are using the newsletter.

We grow by word of mouth. If the newsletter is useful to you, please share with others. And If there’s a story or immigration-related opportunity you think we should consider, please send us an email.

Special thanks for support on this newsletter to Fernada Santos, Adolfo Flores, Roberto Suro, Jacque Boltik.

*Daniela Gerson is a co-founder and the editor of Migratory Notes. She is an assistant professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge. Previously she was a and senior fellow at the Center for Community Media (CCM) at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism; community engagement editor at the LA Times; editor of a trilingual hyperlocal publication, Alhambra Source; staff immigration reporter for the New York Sun; and a contributor to outlets including WNYC: New York Public Radio, The World, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, CNN, and The New York Times. You can find her on Twitter @dhgerson

*Elizabeth Aguilera is co-founder and executive editor of Migratory Notes. She is a multimedia reporter for CalMatters where she co-hosts the new political podcast California State of Mind and covers the health and welfare of California’s next generation. Previously she covered health care and social services, including immigration for the digital outlet. Before joining CalMatters Aguilera reported on community health for Southern California Public Radio. She’s also reported on immigration for the San Diego Union-Tribune, where she won a Best of the West award for her work on sex trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico; and worked for the Denver Post covering urban affairs and immigration. You can find her on Twitter @1eaguilera

*Anna-Cat Brigida is a staff writer for Migratory Notes. She is a freelance reporter covering immigration and human rights in Mexico and Central America. She began covering immigration as a journalism student at USC Annenberg and later moved to Central America to work as a reporter. She has covered the region since 2015 and has been based in El Salvador since January 2018. She has also worked as a Spanish-language writer for Fusion out of the Mexico City office. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Guardian, Univision, LA Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. You can find her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida

*Yana Kunichoff is a special projects editor for Migratory Notes. She currently covers public education for Chalkbeat Chicago. She was project manager for Migrahack 2016 in Chicago. She has also produced feature-length documentaries and a pop-culture web series for Scrappers Film Group; worked as a fellow with City Bureau, where she won a March 2016 Sidney Hillman award for an investigation into fatal police shootings; and covered race and poverty issues for the Chicago Reporter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and Chicago magazine among others. You can find her on Twitter @yanazure

*Migratory Notes Advisory Board: Daniel Connolly, Maria Kari, Dan Kowalski, Paola Marizán, Mirta Ojito, Roberto Suro, Phuong Ly, Fernanda Santos

Migratory Notes

A weekly informed and concise guide to immigration news.

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