This is the first of a three-part series on refugees and immigration by Manji Law.
The United States has long been a nation of immigrants. However, recent changes to immigration policies may signal a new trend for the country.
In the 1600s, Europeans traveled to North America. Soon after, they began importing African people as slaves. During the 1800s and 1900s, the United States experienced immigration from China, Japan, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland. Although racial, religious, and cultural tensions accompanied these waves, the U.S. nevertheless attained its status as a melting pot where everyone could follow their dreams. In fact, in 2005, the mission statement for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) specifically recognized this heritage by including the phrase “a nation of immigrants.”
However, under the administration of President Trump, the federal government has eliminated that sentiment.
In February 2018, USCIS removed the reference to an immigrant nation. Instead, its updated mission statement focused on protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and administering immigration laws. L. Francis Cissna, the agency’s director, defended the change and emphasized the focus on serving the American people. This shift in language arose directly from the Trump Administration’s restrictive views on immigration.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign delivered a strong anti-immigrant message. Since taking office, his policies (which focused primarily on Latin America and Muslim countries) increased procedural barriers for immigrants, people seeking asylum, and international travelers. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the terms of his travel ban, which denies visas to people from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Venezuela.
Photograph by Marian Carrasqeuro for The New York Times
Trump’s next major shift, in April 2018, created the now infamous family separation policy at the Mexican border. This policy directed border agents to detain or deport all adult immigrants crossing the border, and seize any children, including infants. Within months, nearly 3,000 children had been separated from their caregivers. An intense public outcry forced the president to rescind the policy, but hundreds remain in detention.
These aggressive policies stem from Trump’s desire to build a Mexican border wall, which he claims will protect Americans from drugs and violence. Starting in 2015, Trump made this a primary focus of his presidential campaign. His ongoing verbal attacks depicting immigrants as criminals have translated to concrete changes.
Between 2016 and 2017, the drop in refugee admissions from 84,995 people to 53,716 illustrates the immediate results of his policies. In 2018, the federal government capped annual refugee admissions at 45,000, which is the lowest since the program began in 1980. As for foreign workers, a bill in the U.S. Senate would alter eligibility criteria and apply a points system to evaluate candidates for employment-based green cards. Furthermore, Trump has stated his desire to end the diversity visa program. Since 1995, it has provided a chance for over one million people to enter the country. The current administration has also placed the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program on the chopping block. TPS allowed over 320,000 people from 10 countries to live in the United States to escape wars or natural disasters occuring in their homelands. The majority came from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan. These individuals can expect to lose their residency and work privileges in 2018 and 2019.
Due to the sudden changes, many lives have been thrown into turmoil, as the harsh rhetoric has stirred up political passions among Americans on both sides of the debate. Ultimately, much of the hostility lacks a basis in facts, and immigration supporters decry this open hostility. They have gone so far as to demand the disbandment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Current legal actions by the American Civil Liberties Union strive to uphold domestic and international laws for vulnerable people.
Photograph by Joe Raedle for Getty Images (as seen on Vox.com)
With the American public divided on the issues, the future is uncertain. There are a few predictions that seem unavoidable, at least in the immediate future. As long as President Trump is in office, immigration from local neighbors like Mexico will continue to be more difficult and contentious. Additionally, there could be further restrictions on travel from Muslim-majority countries with an enhanced ‘travel ban.’ If the administration’s actions hold true, we can almost certainly guarantee that the reduction of asylum and political refugee grantees will continue. There are even whispers that the Trump Administration will pursue further action on legal immigrants.
These actions will likely have a negative impact on the world’s view of what was traditionally considered an inviting country, one willing to welcome the tired, poor, and huddled masses “yearning to breathe free.” In fact, as the U.S. under the Trump administration continues to isolate itself, the rest of the world may acquiesce. The U.S. may find it increasingly difficult to find other nations willing to work with.
Long-term predictions are less certain, and are dependant on future administrations. Harsh policies might become entrenched and even expanded. Perhaps, however, immigration law will revert to its former, more accepting positions. Only time will tell.
Jameel Manji is an immigration attorney in Atlanta, Georgia and founder of Manji Law, P.C. Manji Law was founded in 2016 with the goal of helping people navigate the complicated immigration system. As an immigration law firm, Manji Law helps clients with family immigration, removal defense (deportation), asylum/refugee waivers, business immigration, naturalization, and more.
If you’re interested in learning more about refugees, I invite you to view Invisible Victimisation: The Gendered Politics of the Refugee Crisis and Thoughts on the Guardian’s “Tourists Go Home, Refugees Welcome”. The second and third parts of Manji Law’s refugee and immigration series will be published soon.
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