President Trump’s disparaging comments in an Oval Office meeting last week about Haiti and “shithole” (or “shithouse”) African countries felt like the immigration debate had reached a new place. It has — but not just because of that meeting.
There’s been a massive conservative shift in the ongoing debate over immigration. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, and some of the party pushing a hard anti-immigrant stance, Democrats and immigration advocates have had to greatly temper their hopes for reform.
The last big effort at immigration reform came five years ago, in a bill written by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight. It included a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. at that time. That pathway to citizenship was offered in exchange for about $40 billion over 10 years to pay for 20,000 new border patrol agents, 3,500 new customs agents, 700 miles of border fencing and other security enhancements. The plan also would have included an increase in H-1B visas, which are reserved for educated, specialized workers; created a new guest worker program; and shifted away from family visas toward a skills-based system that would have raised the caps on visas for some immediate family members in exchange for getting rid of visas altogether for siblings and many adult children.
In other words, it was a compromise, offering a way for those already in the U.S. to obtain legal status while shifting the contours of who would be allowed into the U.S. in the future. While people with higher education or certain skills would have had greater immigration opportunities, visas for extended family of current immigrants and geographically targeted areas would decrease. All the while, enforcement would ramp up. The effort had the support of many Republicans, and the Gang of Eight’s bill passed the Senate by a 2-to-1 margin. But the effort was squashed in the House well before a viable bill was even offered.
Today, the potential compromises look very different. Some Democrats — once adamant that the immigration system needed comprehensive reform rather than piecemeal legislative tweaks — have trained their sights on a long-term legislative fix for a group of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Some Republican plans are offering a path to citizenship for this much narrower group of people — though some of their immigration proposals offer no path at all — in exchange for funding for a border wall and a variety of restrictions on immigration.
That shift in focus is partly out of necessity: Trump canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted through executive order by President Barack Obama. For the 690,000 people enrolled at the time of the announcement, the move laid out a timeline for when they would lose their right to work, as well as their shield from deportation.
Though the program officially begins to phase out starting in March of this year, tens of thousands who didn’t re-enroll by the Oct. 5 deadline will see their protections end before that. (Many already have lost their protections, though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently began accepting renewal applications again because of a federal court order.) Others would have qualified for DACA if the program had continued but were never able to apply. The end of the program will have far-reaching effects on families and communities.
But many advocates say the narrowed focus on DACA, and the support even among Republicans for a long-term fix, isn’t only out of necessity. It’s also a sign of how successful the young immigrants have been at making their case for citizenship.
“You have a lot of business leaders and quasi-mainstream types really getting on board,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a scholar of immigration and citizenship law at the UCLA School of Law. He sees the shift toward a focus on DACA as a validation of incremental political wins and a viable way to reform immigration. A pathway to citizenship for the group enjoys broad bipartisan support from the public.
“It is pretty significant that we’re having this conversation,” said Ignacia Rodriguez, an immigration policy advocate with the National Immigration Law Center. “It’s a Republican-controlled Congress and an administration that isn’t interested in immigration reform.”
The focus on DACA also reflects Democrats’ narrowed goals and limited bargaining power under an administration with restrictionist views on immigration. While the political debate has focused on DACA, Trump has succeeded in executing a far more conservative vision of the U.S. immigration system.
One of Trump’s early acts as president was to make all undocumented people in the U.S. eligible for deportation. Through a combination of executive orders and actions by the Department of Homeland Security, there have been decreases in the number of skilled workers, refugees and families of citizens and permanent residents since Trump took office.
The Department of Homeland Security recently brought an end to Temporary Protected Status, a program that gave temporary visas to people from countries in the aftermath of a natural disaster or war, for 195,000 El Salvadorans, 46,000 Haitians, 2,500 Nicaraguans and more than 1,000 people from Sudan.
The Trump administration has also set the total number of refugees allowed into the U.S. at 45,000 people a year, a steep drop from the 85,000 people admitted in fiscal year 2016. It’s the lowest ceiling in the history of refugee resettlement, according to data compiled by Vox.
Then there are delays in issuing visas for existing programs. Approvals for H1-B visas, given to workers with unique and in-demand skills, declined by 14 percent in fiscal year 2017 from fiscal year 2016, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The administration has also been challenging a record number of visa applications, slowing down the process and discouraging applications to the program. Last year, applications declined for the first time in four years.
Those programs represent a relatively small number of the total immigrants in the U.S. But the Trump administration has also slowed approvals for a larger visa program and simultaneously brought a vocabulary and ideology into the White House that reflects a significant shift in how the U.S. views its obligation to immigrants.
Visa approvals from a program that allows U.S. citizens and green card holders to sponsor immediate family members are at the lowest number in years, as Reuters first reported. A total of 540,810 applications were approved in fiscal year 2017, 22 percent less than in fiscal year 2016. The data also shows that a smaller number of family visas was denied under Trump than during the previous three fiscal years. The result is more people than ever with pending applications: There were 1.29 million applications pending at the end of fiscal year 2017. Thirty-six percent of them are spouses and minor children.
There’s also the ripple effects of Trump’s hardline stance on immigration. The third iteration of the administration’s travel ban recently went into effect and has implications for all kinds of travel from several countries, most of which are Muslim-majority. Attempts to illegally cross the southern border went down after Trump became president, though since April, the numbers have once again been on the rise. Arrests for immigration-related offenses have increased, including for people with no criminal history beyond traffic violations. International student enrollment at universities is down as well. And as some places have declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” passing laws that limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents, federal officials have made a point of conducting raids there.
All of the policy changes have likely added up to fewer new immigrants. And while the policies and enforcement strategies enacted to date are largely reversible, they have caused a major shift in the discussion on immigration reform and surfaced a divide within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Democrats are torn over whether to throw their political weight behind DACA, which could mean forcing a government shutdown. Republicans are debating what to ask for in exchange for a path to citizenship, while others want no path at all. It’s unclear whether there will be inter- and/or intra-party agreement, but it’s clear that wherever they end up will be a far cry from the proposals that seemed so politically promising just a few years ago.