Tracking Trump On Immigration: Despite Focus, Many Ideas Are Stalled Or Blocked

May 17, 2019
Originally published on July 26, 2019 9:08 am

Updated July 26

From the moment President Trump launched his presidential campaign, immigration has been one of his top priorities.

Trump talks frequently about his crackdown on illegal immigration, while his administration also pushes to rein in legal immigration.

The Trump administration recently unveiled sweeping new restrictions that would deny asylum to most migrants at the southern border, only to have the policy quickly blocked by a federal judge.

The White House has also threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, declared a national emergency in an effort to build hundreds of additional miles of border wall, and supported legislation to cut legal immigration in half.

But many of the administration's efforts to reshape migration patterns and restrict immigration have been stalled or blocked by Congress, the courts, or state and local officials.

Here's a more detailed look at what the White House has accomplished on immigration — and what it hasn't.

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Asylum Crackdown

The Trump administration moved to deny asylum to most migrants unless they first apply for protections in an least one country they pass through on their way — a dramatic shift in how the U.S. handles asylum claims. But the new policy was put on hold by a federal judge in California, who found it "inconsistent with the existing asylum laws."

It's the latest effort by the administration to discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. The White House argues that many are abusing generous asylum laws to live and work in the country until their cases are heard in immigration court, which can take years because of extensive backlogs.

Courts have previously rejected some of the administration's tactics, including an effort to deny asylum to any migrant who crossed the border illegally. But the Justice Department has succeeded in making it harder to get asylum based on gang or domestic violence.

The DOJ pushed to get rid of bond hearings for detained asylum-seekers, but has been blocked from doing so. The administration also wants to amend a decades-old settlement called the Flores agreement in order to hold migrant families in detention for longer than a few weeks.

So far, none of these changes have stopped migrant families from crossing the southern border in large numbers to escape from poverty and violence in Central America.


President Trump threatened to deport "millions" of immigrants living in the country illegally. But so far, the widespread ICE raids that he promised have failed to materialize.

The administration also is expanding the use of so-called expedited removal to fast-track deportations of immigrants without a hearing before an immigration judge, unless they can prove they've been in the U.S. continuously for more than two years.

Arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. spiked during the first two years of the Trump administration — for immigrants with and without criminal records. But the numbers remain well below the highest figures of President Obama's first term.

And the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says arrests and deportations declined in early 2019 because the agency is devoting more resources to the southern border.

Still, immigrant advocates say aggressive enforcement by ICE continues to create a climate of fear among unauthorized migrants.

Tariffs on Mexico

The White House warned that the U.S. would impose a tariff of 5% on all products from Mexico and escalate it over the following months — unless Mexico agreed to "substantially" curtail the flow of Central American migrants

Under pressure from Washington, Mexico agreed to step up enforcement and to take in more migrants waiting for their U.S. asylum hearings. Mexico deployed thousands of troops to its northern and southern borders.

And the number of migrants apprehended after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border declined in June for the first time this year. Though the monthly total was still above 100,000 — far higher than it was just six months before that.

President Trump has threatened several times over the past year to close the southern border unless the Mexican government does more to combat illegal immigration. But the White House backed down under pressure from business groups. Those groups — and their allies in Congress — pushed back on the proposed tariffs, as well.

Remain in Mexico

The Department of Homeland Security has sent about 20,000 thousand migrants back to Mexico to wait for months until a U.S. immigration court decides their asylum cases.

Immigrant advocates, lawyers and former U.S. officials say the country is turning its back on asylum-seekers — vulnerable people who are allowed under U.S. law to seek sanctuary here.

A federal court initially blocked the administration from sending asylum-seekers back to crime-ridden Mexican border towns where many are staying in shelters.

But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's injunction, allowing the "Remain in Mexico" policy to continue while the case plays out.

Merit-Based System

President Trump has laid out sweeping changes he'd like to make to the legal immigration system. The White House proposal would favor immigrants with higher skills and more education, and it would shift the immigration system away from family reunification, which has been its guiding principle since 1965.

But the latest proposal is getting little traction on Capitol Hill — particularly among Democrats, whose support would be necessary for the proposal to become law.

Sanctuary Cities

Federal courts have widely rejected the Justice Department's attempts to withhold law enforcement grants from so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. In April, President Trump threatened to bus migrants from the border and then release them in sanctuary cities. But so far, his administration has not acted on those threats.

Family Separation

The administration's "zero tolerance" policy was intended to deter asylum-seekers by separating migrant parents and children at the border — until President Trump ended the policy under pressure last June.

A federal judge has ordered the administration to reunite nearly 3,000 children with their parents. The same judge has since ordered the administration to identify what could be thousands of additional families that were separated before the "zero tolerance" policy took effect.

The Wall

After signing a spending bill to end the government shutdown in February, President Trump declared a national emergency in order to secure billions of additional dollars for his signature immigration policy: the border wall.

That emergency declaration is now being challenged in court by critics who say there is no emergency, and that the president is flouting the will of Congress in order to deliver on a key campaign promise.

Lawmakers have authorized more than $1.3 billion for 55 miles of steel fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration wants to spend an additional $6 billion from military construction and counter-drug accounts to add to that total.


The Supreme Court will hear arguments next term about the Trump administration's efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

In the meantime, nearly 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children are still protected from deportation and allowed to work legally under the program created by President Obama in 2012. The Trump administration tried to end DACA, but has been blocked from doing so by several federal courts.

Democrats and moderate Republicans are likely to insist on some relief for DACA recipients as part of any comprehensive immigration overhaul, while immigration hardliners are wary of granting "amnesty" or a path to citizenship.

Travel Ban

The Trump administration's effort to restrict immigration and travel from several majority-Muslim countries was blocked by lower courts. But a modified version — including the majority-Muslim countries of Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, plus North Korea and Venezuela — was upheld by the Supreme Court in a major victory for the White House.

Another legal challenge remains after a federal judge in Maryland ruled that lawsuit can go forward. But that could take years, so it may be a long time before people who are affected by the policy see a change, if any.


The administration has moved to wind down Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for more than 400,000 immigrants from countries wracked by civil conflict or natural disasters.The immigrants are protected from deportation and allowed to work in the U.S.

A number of legal challenges have been filed. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security has been blocked from ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Sudan by a judge in California.

Birthright Citizenship

Shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump threatened to end birthright citizenship, which is widely understood by legal scholars to be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. He has not followed through on that threat.

More than 30 countries have birthright citizenship, including Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

Public Benefits

Homeland Security is working on rules that would make it harder for immigrants to get green cards, or bring other family members to the U.S., if they use a wide range of public benefits, such as food stamps and subsidized health insurance.

The final rule is still under development. But critics say the proposal is already scaring immigrants away from using benefits. Immigrant advocates and state and local governments are expected to challenge the rule in court once it's finalized.

Public Housing

Thousands of families that include undocumented members could be forced out of public housing by a rule proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These families include estimated 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

The rule is intended to prevent undocumented immigrants or mixed-status families from living in public housing. It's still in the public comment stage, and critics are pressuring HUD Secretary Ben Carson to reconsider.

Refugee Cap

The Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees the U.S. will accept. The official cap is set at 30,000 for the year, the lowest figure since the current refugee resettlement program began in 1980.

But the administration is on pace to admit far less than the current cap. Halfway through the fiscal year, the U.S. had admitted fewer than 13,000 refugees.

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President Trump is calling for a fundamental overhaul of how the United States handles immigration. The president unveiled the proposal at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden yesterday. His plan favors immigrants who are younger and more educated.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance. We won't anymore once we get this passed.

GREENE: Now, immigration, of course, has been a major focus for the Trump administration, but many of its efforts to reshape and restrict who is admitted to the U.S. have been blocked either by the courts or by Congress, and this proposal may be next. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us in our studios in Washington. Hi, Joel.


GREENE: All right. So the president has a plan that would prioritize so-called merit-based immigration. I just wonder, like, what is the criteria that they would use in terms of who to admit?

ROSE: Right. Well, like you said at the top, it would favor immigrants who are younger, who have more education, more skills, more income, who speak English and who can pass a civics exam. All of that would be a really big change in how we do legal immigration in this country, a shift away from family reunification - you know, reunification based on family ties - which has been the basis of our immigration system for decades now. And also, this would mean shifting away from, you know, certain humanitarian immigration, like the refugee resettlement program.

GREENE: It sounds like the reaction so far from Congress has been very negative - and not just from Democrats.

ROSE: Yeah. That's right. Immigration hard-liners don't really like this plan either because it wouldn't actually reduce legal immigration. It would just change the profile of the people who can come in, but it would keep the overall number of new green cards at about the same level as now, at about a million per year. And Democrats don't like it because it doesn't really address their big concerns on immigration, including what to do about the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here in the country. And Democrats control the House, so you really can't pass legislation without them.

GREENE: But could it be because his approach so far hasn't really worked? I mean, what is his track record so far in getting some of the changes he's talked about?

ROSE: It's mixed. Some of the administration's most ambitious efforts to restrict immigration have been stymied by the courts. The administration has tried to punish so-called sanctuary cities, for example, that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities. Courts have widely rejected those efforts. Today, a court in California will consider whether the president can use a national emergency declaration to redirect money to build his signature wall on the southern border.

And there are other administration efforts that are still in the pipeline. The administration has talked about punishing immigrants who use food stamps or who get subsidized health care or live in public housing. And finally, the administration has run into a fair amount of trouble trying to limit who can get asylum in this country. Remember the family separation policy of a year ago?

GREENE: Right.

ROSE: That was supposed to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., but the president had to walk it back under intense pressure, and migrants are still arriving in big numbers at the southern border.

GREENE: But, I mean, it's fair to say he's gotten some of his - the crackdown and tougher approach that he's wanted.

ROSE: For sure. You know, the Supreme Court upheld his travel ban on immigrants and visitors from seven countries, including several majority-Muslim countries. Deportations and arrests are way up since Trump took office. The administration has cut refugee admissions to their lowest level in decades. Those are maybe the high-profile changes that have gone through. But the administration's also made a lot of smaller changes to rules and regulations, and immigration experts say those things may really make a big difference when you add them all up.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for us. Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.