Here´s How Donald Trump Can Make Good on His Promises on Immigration

Watch the documentary, "American Dreamers," which follows the journey of a group of undocumented youth walking across America to organize for immigrant rights.

As Donald Trump takes office this month, one of the first questions on the table will be how he will deliver on his promise to deport the unauthorized immigrants living in this country and to “put an end to illegal immigration.” 

For immigrants without permanent documents or their family members the question – and the possible answer – is even more personal. But in the case of every political offer, practice is more complicated than theory.

While Trump´s campaign rhetoric evoked the tactics of President Eisenhower´s “Operation Wetback”, which prompted massive expulsions from the U.S. back to Mexico in the 1950s, the reality will probably come down to using the power of the presidency to reorganize deportation priorities and push Congress to expand spending at the border on more agents and technology. 

He will also attempt to build a multi-billion dollar border wall, and make Mexico – somehow – pay for it, after the United States advances the money (a recent slight change of plans).

Trump´s followers probably believe that their leader will bring back “deportation forces” that will go neighborhood to neighborhood rounding up immigrants without papers. Trump did say that he would do that, but he has already backed down from such imagery, possibly because it would raise constitutional questions and evoke immediate resistance from governors and mayors.

After the election, Trump modified his “deportation forces” reference, made during the heated Republican primary, to prioritizing “criminal aliens,” a term that is used in immigration laws to define everything from serious criminals and foreigners who commit a minor crime to all undocumented people who cross the border without papers.

Today´s enforcement tactics can yield at least 3 million deportations, which happened throughout the Obama administration. Trump, however, will probably attempt even more using some of the same strategies.

Here are a few of the changes that the Trump Administration could implement. Some will probably be more effective than others.

Eliminate the program DACA, which benefited 750,000 young immigrants

DACA, or Deferred Action for Children Arrivals, was created in 2012 to protect young immigrants who came as children with their families and did not have legal status. Trump, however, could easily eliminate this program that has provided these youngsters work permits and protection from deportation.

More than 750,000 applied and were granted DACA for two years. Many are still in the process of renewing their initial application.

For many years, the plight of this generation of immigrants went unaddressed by majorities in Congress, where efforts to pass the “Dream Act,” to provide legal residency to this particular population, were frustrated by most Republicans and some Democrats. The “Dreamer” movement was born of this frustration, and the activism of young immigrants led to this program in 2012, during Obama´s re-election campaign.

Most Republicans maintained that the program was an “illegal” overreach of the executive branch and most Republican presidential candidates campaign on eliminating it. Given that reality, many “dreamers” have organized and become politically active, and some were prominent figures in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

After Trump´s election, he reiterated his intention to eliminate DACA but said that he would try to “work something out” for Dreamers, without offering specifics.

On the second week of January, a bipartisan group of legislators in both Houses of Congress introduced legislation called “Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy” or the BRIDGE Act, which offers a 3-year deportation protection for current DACA recipients. It´s unclear whether Republican leaders would bring such legislation to a vote, or what Trump´s position is on the bill.

Will Trump move to eliminate the program and then initiate deportations against Dreamers? It´s hard to tell, but this move could prove to be unpopular and generate lots of opposition, although probably not in his base.  

Story continues below

Relax immigration priorities by suspending “The Morton Memos”

Director of ICE, John Morton
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton, who issued the "Morton Memos". | Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Wikimedia Commons

The first two and a half years of the Obama administration saw an important expansion of deportations as the administration implemented programs such as 287 g and Secure Communities. These programs were motivated by the hardening public opinion of unauthorized immigration, particularly after terrorist attacks in the mid-90s and also 9-11.

Both programs tied local law enforcement to the enforcement of immigration laws, either by specific contracts with law enforcement agencies or by the use of “integrated databases and partnerships with local and state jailers to build domestic deportation capacity.”

Starting in 2011, after complaints by local partners and immigrant rights groups that the programs led to the deportation of many non-criminal immigrants, the Obama administration started backtracking by issuing the “Morton Memos,” to address some of these shortcomings.

The memos said, essentially, that the authorities would concentrate on deporting individuals deemed to be threatening to public safety. In 2014, the Obama administration also discontinued Secure Communities and replaced it with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), a less stringent notification requirement between local and federal authorities, among other changes.

In general, all of this led to fewer deportations, leading to the closure of cases for long time residents with family ties and clean backgrounds, and a shift to focusing on long-standing deportation orders, new migrants, and criminals.

Trump could simply choose to eliminate these memos and to try to go back to more forceful and indiscriminate deportations to keep the pace and satisfy his base. Ironically, many believe that he will go back to policies that rated the Obama administration as the presidency with the “most deportations” in American history.   

Revive the worksite raids of the Bush Administration, make E-Verify mandatory

Under President George W. Bush, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) conducted large and spectacular raids on worksites, which yielded many arrests and deportations of immigrant workers without work authorization. President Obama suspended those actions, favoring the so-called “paper raids” (document audits of worksites) and the institution of the previously discussed programs in cooperation with law enforcement.

These raids could put many undocumented and possibly deportable migrants on the path of expulsion to their home countries, but they would fly in the face of Trump´s recent promises to “focus on criminal immigrants.” Still, it happened under the Bush administration, and it could happen again.

Trump could also get mandatory E-Verify passed by Congress and implemented under his watch. E-Verify is an internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.

So far, the federal government mandates certain federal contractors use the program, and 20 states require its use for at least some public or private employers. Critics argue that it relies on error-prone databases which can unconstitutionally lead to a denial of employment to legally authorized workers.

National mandatory E-Verify could be another way to spread the enforcement net and deprive undocumented workers of jobs in the country. 

Jeff Sessions
Senator Jeff Sessions. | Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The question of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General

Immigrant rights groups, cities, and counties are up in arms about the projected increase in deportations that Trump has promised and, in their view, the “very clear danger” of having Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General heading the Department of Justice and controlling immigration courts.

Sessions, who is undergoing the usual confirmation process after being designated by the President-elect as the next Attorney General, is known for his very conservative and restrictive views on immigration. If confirmed as AG, he will head the nation´s 60 immigration courts and the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which are under the Jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.

The next Attorney General will have near total control of the civilian courts in charge of reviewing deportation cases and asylum applications. Sessions can repurpose these courts toward the goal of deporting more people more easily and quickly. He can also change decisions by the Board of Immigration Appeals and change the culture of the courts by removing and naming judges to its administrative courts.

He could also attempt to make immigration courts more conservative by bringing back the selective retirement of “liberal” immigration court appeal judges, such as it happened under George W. Bush´s AG John Ashcroft after 9-11.

Building “The Great Wall”

Last but not least, Donald J. Trump will likely move on his plan to build a wall to rival “the great wall” of China, a reference he has made several times. The building of the wall on the southern border was his most oft-repeated promise during the campaign and a very popular one among his fervent followers.

From the beginning, Trump assured the public that the country of Mexico would pay for the “wall” to be built along the 2,000 mile long border, which includes many different terrains, environmentally protected areas, Indian reservations and private property. It could prove easier said than done, according to experts and it will most likely cost many billions of dollars to build.

In recent weeks, Trump has modified his original promise to indicate that he will ask Congress to advance the money for the wall and then somehow get the money back from Mexico.

It´s unclear how effective such a wall would be at preventing unauthorized immigration or the return of previously deported migrants, but its construction and financing is probably going to be more complicated than it sounds.


Top photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading