Posted on March 10, 2021

One Way Trump May Have Changed Immigration Forever

Jack Herrera, Politico, March 2, 2021

Last month, Stephen Miller — the senior Donald Trump advisor and architect of the former president’s immigration regime — took to Fox News to give a fervid rant on President Joe Biden’s immigration policy. “This is madness!” Miller shouted at one point, referencing a proposal to make available citizenship applications to people the previous administration deported. Since taking office, Biden has rolled back one after another of Trump and Miller’s initiatives. On Day 1, he ended the travel ban from 13 majority-Muslim countries; paused construction of the wall along the Mexican border; and introduced a new bill that would give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Biden also made clear he intends to rein in Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But despite Miller’s alarm at all his work being undone, there’s still one way that his and Trump’s immigration regime remains largely in force — and will likely continue to for some time: Since March 2020, America has been cut off almost entirely to asylum seekers and refugees.

Last year, citing the pandemic, the White House strong-armed the Centers for Disease Control to invoke Title 42, an order that closes the border in times of emergency. Though for many classes of people the border has remained totally porous —businesspeople, vacationers and even many immigrants have crossed it freely for most of the pandemic — asylum seekers and refugees have been blocked. In the months since, a record-low number of refugees have been resettled, and just about every asylum seeker arriving on the southern border, except for some unaccompanied children, has been turned away or summarily deported.

While Biden has started to reopen those processes — people in refugee camps in Mexico as part of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” plan have begun to enter the U.S. to make their cases for asylum — there are reasons to believe that on this front, Trump’s presidency will have a much longer-lasting effect. While Trump and Miller attacked immigration in all its forms, no would-be immigrants received more attention or provoked more action than refugees. And in turning asylum seekers into political ammunition in the American fight over immigration — conflating them with illegal border-crossers — Trump broke a fragile but powerful consensus that had lasted through Republican and Democratic presidents and had kept America open as a nation of refuge for more than a generation.


Since World War II, presidents of both parties have accepted millions of asylum seekers, honoring the treaties and statutes that the U.S. agreed to over the decades after the Holocaust affirming a right to refuge for people fleeing persecution. Taking in refugees has never been particularly popular in American public opinion, leaving the system vulnerable to a populist political attack, but governmental leaders had been able to invoke notions of America’s standing in the world to depoliticize asylum policy and keep commitments relatively steady. No longer.

Since Trump mainly used executive action — circumventing Congress — to change policy, it may not be hard for Biden to reopen the U.S. to refugees and asylum seekers over the next four years. But in the longer term, closing the political divide that Trump widened on asylum will prove much more challenging. Thanks to the last administration, asylum in the U.S., once globally reliable, has become like the carpeting in the Oval Office: something that can be torn up and remade from president to president.


{snip} In 2020, just as the number of asylum seekers worldwide reached the highest levels since World War II, for the first time in over a generation, the U.S. effectively sealed its borders to refugees. After more than three years of chipping away at asylum, in March 2020, the Trump administration universally suspended, with few exceptions, refugee resettlement from other countries, and the U.S. has since turned away hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers at the border.

Trump didn’t invent the issue; as with many things, he rode a wave already cresting in his party. In the years before Trump took office, Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at the advocacy organization Human Rights First, says she began hearing new rhetoric targeting asylum seekers from parts of Capitol Hill. While Republican politicians had long lambasted undocumented immigration, few had ever specifically fixated on asylum, a legal form of immigration. But a new sort of message was beginning to emerge from a handful of congressional offices. Suddenly, in these corners, refugees and asylum seekers were being portrayed as line cutters, as cheaters and as criminals.


{snip} After Trump won the presidency, when the so-called Muslim ban became a reality in the name of national security, its impact primarily fell on asylum seekers. A Cato Institute analysis of State Department data found that from 2016 to 2018, the number of Muslim refugees admitted to the U.S. fell by more than 90 percent, whereas Muslim immigrants and visitors dropped by a much smaller percentage.

For Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, the Muslim ban marked a turning point in American history. “Trump pushed the bounds of what the president can do to restrict legal immigration,” he says. Asylum is supposed to be within the purview of Congress, but Nowrasteh says that, after decades of unwillingness to take action, the legislative branch has ceded most of its power to the executive. When the Supreme Court decided, in Hawaii v. Trump, that the ban could remain in place, Nowrasteh says that a new precedent was set, which Trump would continue to leverage: “that the president can stop all immigration whenever he wants to.”

{snip} After the Muslim ban, Trump and Miller’s specific targeting of asylum seekers soon turned to those coming from Latin America. At the border with Mexico, Trump was far more effective at erecting a policy blockade to keep asylum seekers out than at erecting the physical wall he campaigned on.

His attorneys general, first Sessions then William Barr, issued directives intensely narrowing the grounds for asylum: For example, gang violence and misogynist domestic violence would no longer qualify as persecution, even if a person’s life was clearly in danger. The administration also issued bans of people who traveled through any “third country” on their way to the U.S. and did not request asylum there first. And the Migrant Protection Protocols, often referred to as the Remain in Mexico program, forced asylum seekers to stay outside of the country as they awaited the outcomes of their cases. [snip}

More than anything else, Trump and Miller tried to make it as painful as possible to seek asylum in the U.S. Whereas prior to the Trump administration, most asylum seekers were paroled as they awaited the outcome of their cases, at various times during Trump’s tenure, more than 90 percent of asylum seekers in the U.S. remained locked in detention centers. Some families who fled political persecution in their home countries spent over a year in jail where they had hoped to find freedom. Even the family separation crisis was a result of efforts to deter migrants, including those seeking asylum.

Trump’s broadsides against asylum didn’t stop after Biden won the election. During the time before inauguration, the outgoing administration issued new rules, orders and guidelines on asylum at break-neck speed. {snip} While issuing new policies with weeks left in a presidency might have seemed simply petty, it had a serious effect: Much of it cannot be dismantled overnight. Even advocates acknowledge that to properly change things, the Biden team will have to produce studies and legal arguments, draft new plans, and, at times, allow for lengthy public comment periods, before they alter the Trump doctrine.


{snip} The 46th president can overturn the policies Trump enacted to hobble asylum, but unless there’s a radical repairing of the animosity many in this country now hold toward refugees, the next Republican in charge will have the latitude, and likely the support, to reinstate them.

Having successfully made opposition to Muslim refugees mainstream two years earlier, during the 2018 midterms, Trump’s obsessive tweeting led many of his supporters to understand the arrival of two caravans of asylum seekers from Central America as an “invasion.” Now, in conservative messaging, the terms “asylum seeker” and “refugee” are frequently used in the same breath as the pejorative “illegal immigrant” and are implied to be unworthy objects of sympathy, not to mention potential importers of terrorism, crime and disease. “Your families still cannot go out to eat at local restaurants. But Joe Biden is bringing in thousands upon thousands of refugees from all over the world,” Trump told a crowd during his keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend.

When Trump took office, 35 percent of Republican voters believed the U.S. had a responsibility to accept refugees, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Just a year later, that number fell to just 26 percent. And by 2019, a PRRI survey found that fewer than half of Republicans said they would oppose a law banning all refugees — from anywhere, for any reason — from entering the United States.