Human Rights Column: You Can Keep Your Huddled Masses: Trump v. Immigrants

March 9, 2019
Protesters with locked arms and signs reading "Sanctuary for All" and "No Raids No Ban No Wall" block a driveway at a rally against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Francisco, 28 Feb. 2018. Photo Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Protesters with locked arms and signs reading “Sanctuary for All” and “No Raids No Ban No Wall” block a driveway at a rally against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Francisco, 28 Feb. 2018. Photo Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

From the moment he assumed office, President Trump has advanced the most xenophobic immigration policy since the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), negatively affecting all immigrants regardless of status, including naturalized citizens.

“May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth!” George Washington, offering a toast in New York City on November 25, 1783, as British troops evacuated the city.

In 2018 the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) changed its goal from a commitment to fulfill “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” to a focus on “securing the border.”

Rooted in xenophobia and racism, President Trump’s measures reflect a desire to limit and “whiten” future immigration and to insure that the foreign-born already here stew in fear and anxiety. This fear was evident when I spoke with workers detained in two massive raids in northern Ohio this past year. Many of them have worked in the area for more than 20 years, raising families, attending church, and supporting their communities. They now stood before suspicious immigration judges who slapped them with unattainably high bonds, questioning why they “didn’t own a home or a car.”

The impact of Trump’s policies on would-be immigrants is no less apparent. Applications for immigrant visas, the path to a green card (Legal Permanent Residence), are down 14% from 2016. So are temporary-stay visas. Student visas granted by the State Department (F-1) have declined by 23%, and proposed rules aim to limit visas for high-skilled foreign workers (HB-1), angering even conservative business-oriented organizations. In October 2018, USCIS published changes that would drastically alter who will be issued immigrant visas, granting immigration officials discretion to deny entry based on such factors as income, family size, and English proficiency. The changes target applicants with incomes or assets below 250 percent of the federal poverty line (about $62,000 for a family of four)—a move which would have excluded more than half the legal noncitizen immigrants who arrived during the past five years.  If implemented, these changes would shift legal immigration from current sending areas (Trump’s “shithole” countries) toward higher-income, “whiter,” countries.

Nor can naturalized citizens sleep easy. USCIS has announced a surge in denaturalizations targeting individuals it considers to have been “improperly” granted citizenship, implying that the legal immigration process is riddled with fraud. Finally, reaching for white nationalism’s golden ring, in October Trump threatened to abolish “birthright” citizenship with a stroke of his pen—no small matter, as this right, embedded in the 14th Amendment, carries with it the historical weight of slavery’s demise.

ICE Special Agents (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arresting suspects during a raid. Houston, 2010. Photo Courtesy of ICE

ICE Special Agents (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arresting suspects during a raid. Houston, 2010. Photo Courtesy of ICE

If these moves are intended to limit immigration and “lighten” the US complexion, Trump’s determination to block the entry of refugees and asylum-seekers threatens to shatter the altruistic self-image that Washington has long promoted to the world. To be clear, the aspirational side of US humanitarian practices almost always has outpaced facts on the ground. Despite George Washington’s 1783 toast, quoted above, or Emma Lazarus’ stirring words gracing the Statue of Liberty, US doors have often remained closed to the “persecuted of the earth.” Roosevelt’s refusal to aid Jews fleeing fascist Germany is only one reminder of the deep vein of popular xenophobia US leaders have often seen fit to mine.

Worldwide, an estimated 25 million refugees—defined by the United Nations as individuals who can no longer count on the protection of their own country for “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”—currently live outside of their own countries. The US Refugee Act of 1980 systematized the humanitarian admission of refugees. In 2016, for example, Washington accepted nearly 85,000 refugees (.004% of the worldwide total, so hold the celebrations), including 12,000 from Syria. In 2018, having pledged to accept 45,000 refugees, the US actually admitted half that number, only 62 of whom were Syrian. Washington lowered the ceiling for 2019 to 30,000, the lowest ever; many observers expect refugee programs will be zeroed out by 2020.

The right to asylum, in turn, while rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), allows signatory countries to adjudicate asylum claims. Asylees, according to US immigration law, are individuals outside their country of residence or nationality who face a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” US immigration law holds that anyone can apply for asylum either upon arriving at a port-of-entry or once inside the country—whether or not the applicant has entered the country legally. USCIS officials conduct initial “credible fear” interviews to determine asylum eligibility. Eligible petitioners can remain in the US without being placed in removal proceedings as their cases advance.

While asylum claims have always been hard to win, the Justice Department is taking a hammer to asylum law, slow-walking “credible fear” interviews, hiking “well-founded fear” standards, and limiting where petitioners can apply for asylum. Many of the detainees I spoke with in the Eastern Ohio Correctional Center this past summer were never offered the opportunity of a “credible fear” interview—a crucial step since, lacking a positive determination, they will be deported without further relief. In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed the grounds for granting asylum if the petitioners had been victims of domestic abuse or gang violence, precedents established under the Obama administration. One young man I interviewed, at that point in his fourth detention center since crossing the border in Texas months earlier, had been raped by gang members and threatened by the police in Honduras. His case for asylum, quite strong in 2016, will likely now be denied. These changes have “yank[ed] us all back to the Dark Ages of human rights and women’s human rights,” according to Karen Musalo of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. They also indicate how beholden immigration law courts have become to the government’s political agenda. Immigration judges, who are employees of the Justice Department, are overwhelmingly denying asylum claims on appeal.

In 2017, then-homeland security secretary John Kelly threatened to separate children from parents apprehended entering the country illegally. In 2018, the government followed through, sending children and parents to separate facilities, often at opposite ends of the country, leading to chaos on the border, widespread condemnation even from Trump’s most loyal supporters, and a quick tactical retreat. Still, as of mid-December, more than 14,300 migrant children, some under 12 years old, remained in government detention. Blasting current immigration laws, Trump by-passed the legislative branch and simply rewrote them. In November, he signed an order denying asylum to those who circumvented official border entry ports.

Reassuringly, federal courts and voters have pushed back. A federal judge quickly blocked Trump’s attempts to undermine asylum law, and, in December, the Supreme Court refused to allow USCIS to deny asylum to migrants who cross the Mexican border between ports-of-entry. Trump staked the midterm elections on his conviction that the specter of migrant caravans “threatening” to “overwhelm” the US border would generate votes for a Republican Congress. Instead, Democrats flipped the House. Nevertheless, as of this writing, thousands of migrant children are still separated from their parents in over 100 taxpayer-funded concentration camps across the country. Thousands languish in dangerous conditions in Mexico and immigrants, with or without documentation, remain Trump’s favored scapegoats, blamed, as were others in the past, for all society’s ills both real and imagined. And on Christmas Eve, far from a manger, an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy died in US government custody, the second death of an immigrant child detained at the border in December alone.

Steven S. Volk is Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College and Co-Director of the Great Lakes Colleges Association Consortium for Teaching and Learning. He is currently completing his training to become an accredited immigration advocate. He has been active in immigration and sanctuary work both in Oberlin (which has been a sanctuary city since 2008), and around northeast Ohio.