U.S. Immigration Policy Changes During the Trump Administration

Truman Project
Jul 8 · 12 min read

Immigration has historically been at the forefront of American political debate, and since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. immigration system has faced dramatic change — all for the worse.

In the name of halting illegal immigration, President Trump has put into place policies that intentionally limit the U.S. immigration system, eliminate years of precedent regarding asylum and refugee policies, and pave the way for the human rights abuses currently occurring at our Southern border. As Americans, we have now endured three years of President Trump and his ever-evolving draconian immigration policy. Constant breaking news stories and changing policies can eclipse the “big picture” regarding what is actually going on, as well as cloak the implications that these shifts have for all of those who come to our country seeking better, safer lives. In order to gain a better idea of the big picture, here is a list of President Trump’s major changes to immigration policy since he first took office:

The Travel Ban:

  • Beginning in his campaign, President Trump has repeatedly made promises to stem the flow of Muslim immigrants coming to the United States. This problematic rhetoric earned him widespread support from conservative voters and helped secure the election.
  • President Trump stayed true to this promise, and immediately after his inauguration signed Executive Order 13769 on 27 January 2017. This order — essentially a Muslim ban — limited travel from six countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. As a result of the order, more than 700 people were detained at customs offices, and 60,000 visas were revoked. Soon after the order was released, a judge in Washington blocked the order, declaring it unconstitutional.
  • After the first order was blocked, President Trump issued Executive Order 13780 in an attempt to somewhat soften the language of the original travel ban. This order removed Iraq from the list of countries and specified that it will not affect foreign nationals with valid visas.
  • On 24 September 2017, President Trump issued Presidential Proclamation 9645. This proclamation contained exemptions to the travel ban for those with dual citizenship and permanent residency. Furthermore, North Korea and Venezuela were added to the list of travel-restricted countries. These acts have further perpetuated anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the United States. Last June, the Supreme Court upheld the third version of the travel ban in a 5–4 decision.

Sanctuary Cities:

  • Immediately after taking office, President Trump issued Executive Order 13768: “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” Among other acts, including allocation of increased funds for the expansion of ICE and the creation of the Office for Victims of Immigrant Crimes, this order called for restrictions on federal grants to sanctuary cities. A sanctuary city is defined as: “A city that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation.” Through this order, President Trump attempted to punish sanctuary cities and coerce them into cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by attempting to withhold federal grants except for those deemed necessary for law enforcement. This section of the executive order was ruled unconstitutional in several federal court cases.
  • Further restrictions on sanctuary cities regarding grant access were introduced by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions in July 2017, making it even harder to receive funding. The requirements stated that cities must allow federal ICE agents into detention centers within the city and give ICE notice when any undocumented detainee is being released in order to be eligible for federal grants.
  • As of June 2019, 11 states have banned sanctuary cities including Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Missouri. Bills have been introduced in at least 20 other states that are considering banning sanctuary cities. Although these bills have not yet been formally adopted, it is still alarming that so many states are considering this drastic anti-immigrant proposal.

“Zero-Tolerance Policy” and Family Separation at the Border:

  • In an attempt to convey a crackdown, the Trump Administration began testing a “zero-tolerance” policy in El Paso, Texas, in spring 2017. This policy called for the prosecution of all people trying to cross the border without documentation and allowed for the separation of families trying to cross the border. This practice essentially ripped children from their parents’ arms and placed adults and children in separate ICE detention centers.
  • On 06 April 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the zero-tolerance policy would be extended to all ICE operations along the Southern border. Soon after, it was publicly announced that all families attempting to cross the border illegally with children would be separated indefinitely. This announcement sparked outrage amongst the American public, with many condemning the Trump Administration for these cruel and unnecessary separations. Furthermore, it was reported that families seeking asylum in the United States legally were being detained and separated as well, despite the fact that they were not breaking any laws.
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees denounced the zero-tolerance policy as it was being illegally applied to asylum-seekers. Human rights abuses were reported from the detention centers, stating that they were overcrowded and did not have adequate supplies to house and feed the amount of people detained there. Since this time, several children have died in ICE custody. Multiple human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and Refugees International have condemned these policies, calling them inhumane and asking for an alternative approach to restrict the flow of undocumented immigrants.
  • Due to overcrowding in ICE detention facilities, “tent cities” have been popping up to house undocumented children, migrants, and asylum seekers. Conditions in these tent cities have been reported as deteriorating and not able to support the amount of people living in them. As of May 2019, more money is being allocated to build more tent cities along the Southern border. In late June 2019, photos were leaked of children sleeping on cement and dirt floors in these tent cities, sparking bipartisan outrage and leading to further calls to release detainees. Reports have surfaced of detainees being denied soap and toothpaste, some of them children.
  • In January 2019, it was reported that the government under the Trump Administration had separated thousands more children from their families than had been publicly discussed. The number of separated children had been reported at 2,700, but the actual number appears to be much higher.
  • Issues with keeping track of separated families became apparent when a judge issued an order calling for the reunification of families torn apart. Possibly due to the speed with which it was implemented, or perhaps to a disregard for human rights, the records kept by ICE officials regarding the classification and organization of detained migrants was shotty at best. Reports of more than 400 parents being deported without their children and parents not able to speak with their children for extended periods of time are just a few of the problems with the current administration’s immigration policy.

Buy American, Hire American Executive Order:

  • On 18 April 2017, the Trump Administration released the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order. This order stated that it sought to “create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests.” This order limits the ability of the United States to obtain foreign employees, including high-skilled, highly educated labor. Buy American, Hire American affects H1-B holders by restricting the number of people that can obtain this high-skilled worker’s visa and making it more difficult to obtain in the first place.
  • It has been reported that instead of creating increased prosperity for American workers, this order has in fact done the opposite and is actively hurting the U.S. workforce. This act can be seen as yet another attempt by the Trump Administration to limit legal immigration by backlogging and complicating the process, thereby deterring potential legal immigrants.

Intentions to Repeal DACA:

  • On 05 September 2017, then Attorney General Sessions announced that the Trump Administration had intentions to repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA is an executive order put into place by during the Obama presidency that allows those brought into the United States as children to obtain a difference of deportation that can be renewed every two years, as well as to obtain a temporary work visa. In his reasoning for the repeal DACA, Sessions implied that individuals who are eligible for DACA are “lawbreakers” and that their presence in this country restricts Americans from obtaining employment.
  • In January 2018, a U.S. district court temporarily blocked the repeal, allowing nearly 690,000 people to renew their work permits and stay in the United States for at least two more years. As a result, DACA does still exist, but in a very limited form with a precarious future. This year, House Democrats passed a DACA preservation bill, but the bill is unlikely to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate. If by some chance it did, President Trump has already stated his intention to veto the bill.
  • Recently, the Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing arguments regarding the Trump Administration’s announcement that DACA will be repealed. SCOTUS will decide whether or not the repeal of DACA is constitutional. Arguments will be heard in October of 2019, and a decision is expected to be reached by June 2020.

The “Big Beautiful” Wall:

  • Building a wall along the Southern border has been a main policy goal of the Trump Administration since before the election in 2016. As a candidate, Trump centered a majority of his speeches and rallies around the imaginary wall, stating that not only would it be finished during his presidency, but that Mexico would in fact pay for it.
  • On 25 January 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13767. This order calls for a 2,000 foot wall to be built along the Southern border, allocates increased funding and resources for immigration related agencies including ICE, expedites the deportation process, calls for increased detention along the Southern border, and authorizes non-immigration related agencies such as police officers to enforce immigration laws.
  • It was not until September 2017 that plans for beginning the construction of the wall in California were announced. Rather than a 2,000 foot concrete structure, this prototype was in fact not a real wall but rather metal slats sticking out of the ground for approximately 30 feet. In 2017, after the Mexican President stated that Mexico would in fact not be paying for the wall, President Trump retaliated by threatening tariffs on all imported goods from Mexico coming to the United States. This notion was dispelled immediately as being illegal and irresponsible, likely to result in negative consequences for the economies of both countries.
  • In January 2018, ICE requested $18 billion over the next 10 years to fund construction of the wall. Furthermore, the U.S. government was forced to shut down from late 2018 to early 2019 due to inability to agree on a budget for the next year. The disagreement stemmed from the amount of money the Trump Administration was requesting be allocated towards building the wall.
  • On 15 February 2019, President Trump declared a national emergency at the Southern border in an attempt to secure billions of dollars he was requesting for the wall. This action was immediately met with outrage and accusations that President Trump was over-extending his power as a U.S. president. He was sued by 16 states on the basis that no actual national emergency existed, and on 26 February 2019, the House overturned the national emergency. However, President Trump quickly vetoed this action. As of March 2019, the House failed to overturn President Trump’s veto, and the battle rages on to this day.

Refugee Caps:

  • The United States has long been considered a refuge for those seeking protection from dire situations in their home countries. During the Obama Administration, the maximum number of refugees to be accepted in 2016 was set at 110,000 people. Although this number was not met, nearly 80,000 people were admitted into the United States as refugees during this time. However, one of the first acts by Trump as president was to limit the number of refugees to be admitted to only 50,000 for 2017, cutting the previous cap in half.
  • On 27 September 2017, the Trump Administration announced that the refugee cap for 2018 would be even lower, allowing for a record-low number of only 45,000. The following year on 24 September 2018, the cap for 2019 was announced to be 30,000 people. It must be noted that not only is this number the lowest number of refugees to be admitted to the United States, but also that the Trump Administration implemented this policy during one of the worst global refugee crises in human history, with a record number of people seeking refuge and forced to live in inhuman conditions on the fringes of society, often confined and detained within dangerous refugee camps.
  • This act by the Trump Administration to limit the number of people helped by the United States in this dire time of need sends a clear message to the international community that the current administration is thoroughly unsupportive of refugees and the issues they face.

Ending Temporary Protective Status:

  • The Trump Administration has worked to end Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for citizens from certain countries. According to USCIS, “The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.” TPS allows people to work legally in the United States and prevents them from being deported if they are undocumented.
  • In October 2017, President Trump began ending TPS for certain countries, starting with Sudan and moving to Nicaragua, Haiti, El-Salvador, Nepal, and Honduras. By the middle of 2018, President Trump had ended TPS for six countries, affecting the status of nearly 300,000 people who may now face the risk of deportation back to countries in which they may face life-threatening danger.

President Trump and Asylum-Seekers:

  • President Trump has repeatedly shown that he does not understand the asylum laws of this country by treating those seeking asylum as if they are coming here illegally when that is not the case. According to law, asylum-seekers who present themselves at a U.S. border crossing are not breaking the law and have the right to enter the country pending a meeting with an immigration judge who will decide if their situation warrants asylum in the United States.
  • In late March 2018, a caravan of asylum seekers, mostly from Honduras, began walking on foot towards the United States. Nothing about this caravan was inherently dangerous, and the people walking towards the United States were all claiming asylum. According to law, they should have been admitted to the United States in order to receive due process. However, President Trump has used these people to further stoke anti-immigration rhetoric and fear amongst the American people by implying that they are criminals, and calling the caravan “an assault on our country” in a tweet.
  • In October 2018, President Trump announced that he would be deploying 800 national guard troops to “defend” the Southern border from the caravan of asylum seekers.
  • In a further attack on asylum precedent, in December 2018, President Trump asked the Supreme Court to let the federal government bar certain people from seeking asylum, a move that was ruled illegal by a federal judge soon after.
  • In early 2019, reports surfaced of another caravan of asylum seekers forming a caravan in Honduras were released. Due to new policies implemented by the Trump Administration, asylum seekers may now have to wait outside of the United States for their paperwork to be processed. It is unknown whether or not this new policy will affect the more recent caravan of migrants, but many migrants from the previous caravan in 2018 are still waiting for asylum-approval in Tijuana.
  • In April 2019, President Trump repeated his threats to send National Guard troops to the southern border to address the asylum seekers peacefully walking towards the United States. This threat contained the stipulation that troops would not be sent if Mexico would act further to “block” the caravan from entering the United States. Again, President Trump has shown his complete disregard for U.S. and international law in regard to asylum-seekers. President Trump has made multiple threats against Mexico in regard to stemming the flow of migrants across the border. These threats have ranged from tariffs to closing the border completely. These threats have mostly proven to be just that, but it cannot be denied that U.S.-Mexico relations are currently strenuous at best.


When stepping back and examining the larger picture of what is going on in regard to the Trump Administration’s immigration policy changes, one cannot deny that President Trump is intentionally trying to impede the legal immigration system of this country. We must not forget that the United States is a nation built on the backs of immigrants, and turning our backs on those in need, including asylum and refugee seekers, projects a nationalist stance to the international community. As the immigration debate rages on, we must keep in mind not only the day’s breaking news, but the underlying systemic and structural barriers that are put up by this administration in regard to immigration policy.

Anisa Dagher is a Communications Intern at Truman National Security Project. She is majoring in International Relations and minoring in Political Economy at Michigan State University. Views expressed are her own.

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