In his “Contract with the American Voter,” President-Elect Donald Trump lists the steps he wants his administration to take and the legislative measures he will work with Congress to introduce during his first 100 days in office. Four of these steps and two legislative measures are related to immigrants, refugees, and immigration.
What has Trump promised, and what is likely to happen?
Immigration promise 1: “Cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.”
Trump has pledged to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 executive action that has provided work authorization and temporary protection from deportation to approximately 750,000 youth who arrived to the United States as children and have lived in the country since 2007. This group has every reason to fear that they will lose their opportunities for work, driver’s licenses (in many states), and protection from deportation, leaving them vulnerable to removal. However, Trump has not said that he will prioritize DACA youth for deportation, focusing instead on “criminals.”
In his first television interview since winning the election, Trump’s message on deportations and the future legalization of undocumented immigrants was mixed. When asked about his pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, he said, “After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about who are terrific people.” This could refer to—in part or in whole—the group of youth who have DACA. But what metrics would be used to determine that the border is secure and when would people opposed to legalizing undocumented immigrants be convinced that the border is secure enough?
Immigration promise 2: “Cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities.”
Though sanctuary city has no formal definition, it normally refers to places that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents. Nearly 300 jurisdictions in the country could be considered sanctuaries, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami-Dade County. It is unclear how Trump would define “sanctuary cities” or which funds would be withheld, but a 2015 bill sponsored by Senator Pat Toomey would have blocked sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving Community Development Block Grants and Economic Development Administration Grants. Mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington, DC, and other cities have pledged to continue being sanctuaries.
Immigration promise 3: “Begin removing the more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won't take them back.”
Fact checkers have refuted the claim that there are two million undocumented immigrants who are convicted criminals. Some estimates say that there are only 820,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal records in the country, including 690,000 with a felony or serious misdemeanor conviction. Moreover, felony under immigration law can mean something different than under criminal law. Some of these estimated 690,000 have likely committed relatively minor crimes. For example, theft and simple battery are felonies under immigration law.
An estimated 45 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States have (mostly US-born) children, so these deportations will affect many US-citizen children as well. The harmful consequences of deportations for children have been well documented.
Additionally, current funding for immigration enforcement under the Obama administration supports processing, detaining, and deporting about 400,000 immigrants a year, so additional appropriations would be needed to increase this pace.
Trump’s promise to cancel visas to countries that do not take US deportees is a response to countries, (e.g., India, China, and Haiti) that do not always accept deportees with criminal records from the United States. The United States cannot return immigrants to their home countries without that country’s cooperation. To compel these countries to accept deportees, Trump is proposing denying travel visas to these countries’ residents. No one knows how countries would respond to such a policy. Notably, India and China are two of the country’s largest sources of temporary workers, international students, and permanent immigrants.
Immigration promise 4: “Suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur. All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting.”
Though the United States already has a highly structured procedure for screening refugees and an ongoing vetting process to assess whether refugees pose a security risk, Trump’s policy shift could have a big impact on the US refugee program. The United States offers protection to people who have a well-founded fear of persecution, often as a result of war or violence. Refugees are escaping many countries and areas that could be considered terror-prone regions, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Could these places be “areas where vetting cannot safely occur?”
During his campaign, Trump promised to bar all Muslims from entering the country, linking refugees and other immigrants of that faith to terrorism. Trump has overstated the number of Syrians who have entered the United States and has called them “a great Trojan horse” that will lead to future terror attacks. Media outlets are reporting that Trump’s advisers are considering a new special register of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. A registry for men from certain predominantly Muslim countries was implemented shortly after the September 11 attacks, but was effectively ended in 2011 because of allegations of discriminatory profiling and its lack of effectiveness in rooting out terrorists.
Immigration promise 5: The End Illegal Immigration Act.
This proposed legislation, which would require Congress to act, “fully funds the construction of a wall on our southern border with the full understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall.” It has other provisions, such as mandatory prison sentences for reentering the United States after deportation and ensuring that “open jobs are offered to American workers first.” Trump has emphasized the border wall (or fence) from early in his campaign and seems unlikely to abandon the effort. Prior attempts to expand border fencing beyond the current 650 miles, such as those following passage of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, have stalled because of lawsuits by environmental groups, because of construction difficulties on mountainous terrain, and because stretches of the border are privately held.
Immigration promise 6: The Restoring National Security Act.
This legislation focuses largely on US military capacity and investments and “establishes new screening procedures for immigration to ensure those who are admitted to our country support our people and our values.” While few details are available, Trump offered some clues in his August speech on immigration in Phoenix, when he emphasized that “not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. It is our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish here.” He also spoke about the US refugee program, saying, “applicants will be asked for their views about honor killings, about respect for women and gays and minorities, attitudes on Radical Islam, and many other topics as part of the vetting procedure.”
These new screening procedures may signal a shift from a system that prioritizes family ties to one that focuses on immigrants with language and professional skills likely to contribute most to the US economy. It may be similar to Canada’s points system, which bases admissions on high human-capital characteristics, including skills, education, work experience, and language ability. There may also be some type of ideological test to ensure that US entrants are willing to endorse certain values, resembling a 10-year-old policy in the Netherlands.
Details remain to be filled in for all these promises made in the Contract with the American Voter. Some of them may face an uphill battle in Congress. Meanwhile, the proposals have activated the fears and hopes of immigrants and refugees and of those who provide services to, advocate for, and govern the places they live. However these plans unfold, there will be ramifications for immigrants, their families, and communities across the country.