When Donald Trump became president, he immediately set out to change the country’s immigration system, including with a travel ban that mostly affected countries with large Muslim populations and by making stark changes at the southern border.
Since leaving office, Trump has attacked his successor’s record on immigration. President Joe Biden has not countered Trump’s approach the way some immigration advocates had hoped and has relied on deterrence as other presidents have. Yet in comparison with Trump, Biden has not used cruelty and fear as a cudgel.
That was a mainstay of the Trump immigration approach: deterrence through cruelty. Here are five highlights of Trump’s immigration and border policies.
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The Travel Ban
Trump began his presidency by signing an executive order that sought to limit travelers from seven largely Muslim countries for 90 days. The order, with some exceptions, affected travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It also suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.
The travel ban caused instant chaos. Airports were clogged with travelers who had been on airplanes when the order was signed and had no way of entering the country. Advocates sued, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the policy in a 2018 ruling. The administration issued additional travel bans as time went on, removing or adding countries, including several African nations, often using terrorist activities as justification.
The Border Wall
In 2017, Trump began focusing on one of his earliest campaign promises — building a physical wall along the border between the United States and Mexico. The idea was initially suggested by a Trump campaign aide, Sam Nunberg, as a memory aid to prompt the candidate to remember to talk about immigration in his speeches. But it soon became a rallying cry at his events.
“You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving,” Trump told the editorial board of The New York Times during the 2016 campaign, “I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ And they go nuts.”
Trump had a series of extreme designs for the wall. He wanted spikes on top, black paint to burn the hands of immigrants trying to scale it, possibly a moat at the bottom. He wanted it 30 feet high. He queried at one point whether migrants could be shot in the legs to slow them down. Aides ignored such suggestions.
Ultimately, the construction of the wall was enmeshed in a partial government shutdown and money for it was not apportioned by Congress. Trump vowed to make the wall happen himself through the executive branch. Fewer than 500 miles of barrier, at an estimated cost of $15 billion, were constructed, a fact that some of Trump’s Republican critics privately point to as a weakness. Nearly all of those 500 miles were in areas where dilapidated barriers already stood.
By 2018, Trump — along with Jeff Sessions, the hard-line anti-immigration former senator who was attorney general at the time — was frequently berating his Cabinet secretaries over the number of illegal border crossings still happening. But the administration had a new plan for deterrence.
“We need to take away children,” Sessions told other officials, elaborating on a new form of “zero tolerance.” The policy involved separating children and their caregivers who had crossed the border, and prosecuting the adults. According to notes from one of the people in the meeting, Sessions’ message was: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”
The result of the policy: images and stories of children ripped from parents’ arms, crying and traumatized. Trump eventually ended his own administration’s policy by executive order in 2018, amid a widespread outcry and intense media coverage, but at a town-hall meeting on CNN last week, he said he would reinstate the policy if elected in 2024.
In addition, Trump at times appeared interested in preserving some aspects of the Obama-era program known as DACA, under which people brought to the United States when they were young were spared deportation, a program he had promised to end as a candidate. But he allowed Sessions to announce its end, and the matter was tied up in court for years.
For a president obsessed with the number of border crossings, 2019 was Trump’s most difficult year. An administration agreement with Mexico requiring asylum-seekers to stay there while awaiting processing in the United States — which was heavily criticized by human rights activists as an effort to reduce legal asylum — had not yet gone into effect across the entire border.
Trump’s administration toyed with various ways to deter immigrants without legal permission that year, including with a plan that was ultimately abandoned for deportation raids targeting families in 10 major cities.
Trump’s policies also led to the overcrowding of border facilities. When migrant children who are traveling alone are processed in a Border Patrol facility, they are supposed to be transferred to a shelter managed by the Health and Human Services Department, where many are subsequently released to a sponsor who is a relative.
But Trump deterred many sponsors from claiming those children by requiring they provide personal information that some feared would later be used to find and deport them. Many children were held in cells along the border for weeks, even though the government is supposed to transfer them to shelters within 72 hours. The border facilities lacked access to proper hygienic resources and the children were in some cases exposed to disease.
The COVID Year
When the coronavirus surfaced in the United States in early January 2020, Trump instituted a ban on travel from China, where the virus originated. He also moved to enact a policy known as Title 42 that March, using an obscure part of public health law to expel migrants and asylum-seekers because of the pandemic.
It empowered the Trump administration to put in place some of its most aggressive border policies, and officials used the pandemic to rapidly turn away migrants at the border without providing most of them an opportunity to ask for asylum.
Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration agenda, had repeatedly sought to use the law to block asylum-seekers and had finally found his chance in the pandemic. In violation of international refugee laws, the Trump administration also initially expelled children from other countries, including those traveling alone, to Mexico during the pandemic.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have argued that they needed Title 42 to contain the coronavirus pandemic. But the law has also had the unintended consequence of encouraging hundreds of thousands of desperate people to make repeated attempts to enter the country. Many of those subjected to the rule are expeditiously returned to Mexico only to try again a few days later.
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