Today Trump’s team announced its broadest assault yet on the asylum process: a regulatory change filed with the Federal Register saying that anyone who passes through another country to reach the United States would be ineligible to claim asylum here. Because it is an interim rule, it does not need to go through the regular and lengthy approval process. As a result, unless the courts intervene, at the stroke of a pen Trump will have gutted decades of American asylum and immigration policy, essentially preventing all Central Americans from claiming asylum.
This assault is in keeping with the most important trend of the last few months: Trump’s ramped-up nativism, and his bending of the Federal bureaucracies to his will on the matter.
For the first couple of years of Trump’s presidency, if there was a saving grace, it was the sheer incompetence of the administration. Time and again, it pushed ghastly policies, and time and again those policies fell flat largely because they were worded sloppily, implemented badly and generally open to judicial challenge. The administration’s shrill and grating bark was, from out the gate, somewhat worse than its bite.
As we approach the three-quarter mark, with the presidential election not much more than a year away, the Trump administration’s policies are still poorly worded and still open to court challenge — but their implementation mechanisms have been greased. Particularly when it comes to anti-immigrant policies, we are now seeing a coordinated effort, across agencies and government departments, to shift the country dramatically in a nativist direction.
In the final year before the election, Trump is drumming up a continued sense of crisis around the border and immigration, portraying immigrants as invaders and arguing that the most coercive and cruel policies are justified in repelling them.
We see the consequences most explicitly in the prison camps along the border so crowded with hungry, sick, terrified people that the shameful images leaking out resemble photos of the Bosnian-Serb-run Omarska concentration camp during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. And we see it, too, in indiscriminate, dragnet, ICE raids launched into poor, immigrant neighborhoods in the country’s big cities. In spirit, we are, as a country, mass producing nightmares stamped with the seal of approval of the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, the administration’s regulatory changes are slowly and deeply implementing Trump’s nativist push. Trump’s White House is directing the entire administrative apparatus of the United States government to maximize its efforts to limit immigrants’ – and their family members’ — access to any and all benefits, and to consider use of such benefits as grounds for deportation.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a rule change in how its agencies interpreted “public charge,” the likelihood that an immigrant or would-be immigrant is or will be a “burden” on state finances. Historically, that definition of public charge has been largely limited to reliance on cash welfare; it has never been used to render immigrants ineligible for emergency food or health or housing assistance. Under the new definition, use of any of these additional forms of assistance would also render a person vulnerable to deportation — or, for would-be immigrants, if they were deemed likely to use these forms of assistance in the future, to denial of entry in the first place.
The proposals went through a public comments period earlier this year that generated a record number of comments — and those comments are still being read through by the agencies concerned. However, despite the fact that the comments were by overwhelming margins hostile to the changes, it appears likely the government will ultimately ignore them and, later this year, implement the new rules.
Now, as those rule changes near, the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have also come up with their own versions of Public Charge.
The Department of Justice changes, which news agencies began reporting in May, would fast-track deportations resulting from the use of benefits that the DHS public charge rule changes prohibit immigrants from accessing. Since a court ruling in 1948, the government has only deported those who used benefits illicitly, were asked by the government to reimburse it for the used services, and didn’t make the reimbursement. It hasn’t deported people simply for the use of the benefits themselves. The Department of Justice change would override this precedent and push for wholesale deportations.
Meanwhile, HUD’s changes would kick all mixed–status families — families in which some members are undocumented while others are legal immigrants or U.S. citizens — out of public housing. As I have previously discussed in Truthout, by HUD’s own estimates this would result in over 100,000 people, including tens of thousands of U.S. citizen children, being deliberately made homeless, courtesy of the United States government.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has already begun slowing down and rejecting visa applications from poor people coming to the country from poor parts of the world. Fewer family members are able to get visas to join relatives in the United States; and overseas workers hoping for H1B and other work visas are having to wait longer to receive approval, their applications now subject to rejection for the most capricious and arbitrary or reasons.
This isn’t random bureaucratic coincidence. There is a vast effort afoot now, one championed by Trump, by his adviser Stephen Miller, and by his national security team, to coordinate across federal agencies, all with the intent of slamming the door on immigrants, and of making the lives of those already in the country more precarious.
It is a truly vile, nativist and, unfortunately, increasingly effective agenda. Step by step, Trump is locking down America, marginalizing and terrorizing immigrant families, and reshaping immigration policy via executive fiat in a way that will impact the country for decades to come. The ACLU and others will almost certainly file for injunctive relief against the latest attempts to limit who can claim asylum, but relying on the courts to block measures like these is not enough. If we are to retain our moral integrity as a country, we must fight this violent, cruel agenda — and all the policies that form its component parts — with all the strength that we possess.