Last year, the Trump administration rolled out several policies that restricted access to asylum as well as employment-based and family-based immigration pathways. With a presidential election on the horizon, 2020 could bring even more restrictions as US President Donald Trump makes a final push to fulfill his agenda before voters head to the ballot box.
Here are 10 immigration issues we’re watching this year, below.
Trump’s focus on immigration enforcement has touched every aspect of the US immigration system. As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, the candidates will need to stake out their positions on everything from the border wall and asylum policy to the travel ban and employment-based immigration. They will also need to decide how far they’ll go in crafting alternatives to Trump’s policies.
“It’s easy for all these candidates to express opposition to what this president is doing,” said Anil Kalhan, an immigration law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “But in their limited comments on immigration so far, I have seen the candidates clustered in two groups: There are those who seem to be saying that it is enough to go back to the pre-Trump years, and those who seem to be saying we need a more fundamental rethink in the approaches to immigration developed over the past 25-30 years.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden falls closer to the first camp: He has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s toughest anti-immigration policies. On the more progressive end of the spectrum are Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are calling for the decriminalization of border crossing and a reshaping of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Last year, the Trump administration waged an attack on the asylum system, rolling out a series of policies that effectively cut off access to asylum at the southern US border. “It’s such a long process for people to seek asylum, and they’re trying to tighten it at every step,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC. The Trump administration’s most effective — and controversial — policy has been “Remain in Mexico,” officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. It has forced at least 50,000, mostly Central American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico, often in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, while their immigration cases wind their way through US courts.
Separately, the Trump administration has implemented a ban on asylum applications from migrants who transited through another country en route to the US. It has also started sending migrants back to Central America under a series of deals it signed with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the very region from which most asylum-seekers to the US are fleeing.
All of these policies are before the courts, although they have been allowed to go into effect in the meantime. Some issues to watch in 2020: Will Mexico continue to allow people to wait along the Mexico side of the US-Mexico border under MPP? Will more asylum-seekers give up and return to their home countries? How many asylum-seekers will be returned to Central America through agreements with the United States — and is it reasonable to expect any of them will apply for asylum there instead? What other measures will the Trump administration pursue to cut off asylum?
Related: How Trump's bilateral deals with Central America undermine the US asylum system
Mexico has cooperated with the US on MPP. Reports of violence against migrants in Mexico is well-documented, with incidents ranging from robbery and kidnapping to rape. US officials have downplayed reports of violence against migrants and defend the program as a “game changer” for addressing overcrowded holding facilities on the US side of the border. Further, only 117 people have been granted asylum or some other form of relief under the program.
The MPP program is currently under review by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in California. If the court rules against the program, the US government can be expected to appeal. The case could reach the Supreme Court, while pressure from immigration advocates to halt MPP will continue.
“The amount of suffering that this policy has caused is just terrifying,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, which is suing the Trump administration over MPP. “The people who have been returned include families with young kids and returned to conditions that are not only incredibly dangerous in terms of the cartels that prey on them.”
Tens of thousands of migrants waited along the Mexican border last year for a chance to enter the US. Though most came from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, an increasing number were Mexican nationals. This shift is set to continue in 2020. Mexicans are fleeing escalating violence both in longtime hotbeds for drug cartels — such as Guerrero, Veracruz and Michoacán states — but also in newer, disputed areas for criminal groups, such as Zacatecas state.
The policy of forcing certain asylum-seekers to wait on the Mexican side of the border — a process US border officials call “metering”— has sparked protest among Mexican migrants. In recent weeks, Mexicans who are waiting in Tijuana, a city at the US border, are demanding Mexico’s government to do more to assist people fleeing violence in Mexico. There are also signs from top immigration officials that the Trump administration may try to deport Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala, a proposal that would certainly be challenged in US courts. A new pilot proposal is also underway in El Paso, Texas, to speed up the return of rejected Mexican asylum applicants to their home countries.
The Trump administration cut US refugee admissions to a record-low ceiling of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020. That means slowdowns in refugee arrivals and delays in family reunifications. But it also spells danger for the nation’s nine resettlement agencies, which are charged with helping refugees through their first months in the US. Hundreds of local offices rely on federal funds that are tied to the number of refugees they resettle. Fewer arrivals equal less money — and could bring more layoffs and more office closures.
This year’s ceiling is a far cry from the 110,000 Barack Obama pledged in the final year of his presidency, and it’s threatening the survival of a national refugee resettlement infrastructure built up over four decades. How will the agencies weather this storm? Can they avoid additional closures? Several Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to increase the ceiling again to over 100,000 — but what will be the agencies’ fate if Trump wins in November?
Related: US refugee agencies wither as Trump cuts admissions to historic lows
In November, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that will determine the fate of some 700,000 beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era program for undocumented young people that the Trump administration tried to end in 2017. A decision is due out by June of this year.
Whatever the high court decides, the future of DACA recipients is sure to remain a major presidential campaign issue. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, most of whom were brought into the country by their parents when they were children. So far, lower courts have held most of the DACA program in place. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is going after DACA recipients in other ways, most recently with a rise in instances of Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking courts to reopen long-closed deportation cases involving DACA recipients.
Related: Trump ended DACA. This woman is suing to keep the program alive.
Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters
On the campaign trail, Trump is already repeating his signature promise to build a more “beautiful” wall along the US-Mexico border. The official White House-issued goal is for 450 miles of new border wall by the end of 2020. The reality may be wildly different.
In 2019, as a result of congressional, environmental and legal challenges, the Trump administration only managed to replace existing fence structures with new barriers (which people have managed to scale over or break through).
Heading into 2020, Congress approved more than $1.3 billion in funding for fencing for the fiscal year, but that amount is far less than what the administration wanted. Also, in December, a federal judge blocked the administration’s attempt to use a national emergency declaration in order to tap $3.6 billion in military construction funding for the wall. In the meantime, the administration may step up its efforts to seize private land, particularly in Texas, to secure as much new construction as possible.
Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
The population of immigrants detained by ICE rose significantly during the Obama administration. Trump has continued this expansion, with record highs of more than 52,000 people detained at times in 2019. The numbers exceed congressional limits and are expected to continue to rise in line with the administration’s expanded immigration crackdown, which includes detaining an increasing proportion of immigrants with no criminal convictions.
Shifts are also underway in terms of where — and in what types of facilities — immigrants are being detained. A growing percentage are being detained in large facilities controlled by private prison companies such as CoreCivic, The Geo Group, Inc. and LaSalle Corrections, rather than county jails, in response to some local counties’ refusal to cooperate with ICE requests to turn over immigrants in the custody of local law enforcement.
The location of detention facilities is also changing. California became the first state to ban the opening of new private detention facilities (although not before the signing of some last-minute lucrative contracts between ICE and private facilities). Meanwhile, states in the southern US — namely Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi — have aggressively opened new facilities. 2020 will likely bring a rise in the detainee population in states with policies and immigration judges that are less than friendly toward immigrants.
Applications for naturalization and legal permanent residency increased before Trump’s election in 2016 and have continued apace. “We may see a record number of citizenship applications because two things move this needle: a looming fee hike and an election year. We could see well over a million people apply for citizenship,” said Doug Rand, co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a group that assists people navigating the immigration system.
Longer wait times for citizenship may affect people’s ability to register to vote in time for the November general election. Nationally, the wait for citizenship currently averages 10 months, nearly double what it was just two years ago, thanks to a combination of more vetting and diverted resources from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices. The wait can also vary dramatically depending on the location (wait times in Albany, New York, can range between 10 to 17 months, while the range in Baltimore is 9 to 22 months). Fees for immigration fees across the board, including for citizenship petitions, are also set to go up exponentially.
Related: Under Trump, immigrants face an increasingly long and complicated road to citizenship
Though much of Trump’s focus has been on unauthorized immigration, this administration has also set its sights on restricting legal immigration. Last year, for example, Trump tried to restrict most family-based immigration by signing a proclamation that would have barred immigrants who did not have health insurance or could not prove they could afford to pay for medical care. That proclamation has been blocked by the courts. In addition, his administration has proposed policy changes that would reduce the number of people eligible for green cards and other visas by expanding the definition of who qualifies as a “public charge.” This measure could have the most sweeping impact on legal immigration. The courts have temporarily barred it from going into effect, though the legal battle is not over. Separately, the Trump administration is also reportedly considering a regulation that would make it easier to deport immigrants who use public benefits.
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