Immigration Policy Under President Trump: Toughening Up or More of the Same?

Since the day he announced his candidacy for President of the United States, Trump has called for comprehensive immigration reform, usually spouting, “We’re gonna build a wall, and Mexico’s gonna pay for it!” Through telling his supporters that immigrants have taken jobs away from hard-working Americans and given only higher crime rates in return, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has energized xenophobic movements in the United States. Consequently, a palpable national tension between white nationalists and minority groups surges, leaving undocumented individuals fearing for their future and safety. As Trump’s political style lends itself to vague (yet “tremendous”) promises, it is difficult to forecast how exactly the President-elect will choose to reform immigration policy come January. Throughout the duration of his campaign, Trump has presented various – and at times contradictory – promises regarding how he will approach immigration issues while in office. Oscillating between hardline, mass-deportation strategies and the idea that skilled undocumented immigrants should be able to pursue legal status in the United States, Trump’s concrete plans for immigration reform remain somewhat of a mystery.

During a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump claimed, “Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation – that is what it means to have laws and to have a country.” Yet, at the same time, he has expressed that the United States economy stands to benefit from immigrants seeking further education. In an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press last fall, Trump explained, “We’re going to try and bring them back rapidly, the good ones…We have to bring [immigrants] that are university, you know, go to universities, that are doctors. We need a lot of people in this country.” Nonetheless, Trump’s immigration platform contends that the United States’ primary security interest lies in ensuring every inhabitant resides in the country legally, suggesting the ultimate goal of deporting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the U.S.

In order to ensure all undocumented immigrants are removed from the country, Trump has vowed to strike down every executive order Obama enacted during his time in the Oval Office, and as the next President of the United States, Trump has the power to do so. Such an act would terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that has granted protection and work permits to young immigrants brought into the country as children. Should Trump choose to enforce removal proceedings against those that DACA has benefited, more than 700,000 people face the risk of deportation. When pressed to detail his plans to pay for his more robust deportation efforts, Trump has hinted at reallocating funding from federal bureaus such as the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection agency.

Serving as an influential voice throughout the campaign, Trump’s long-time supporter and recent pick for U.S. Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, has built his political career on anti-immigration rhetoric and calls for mass deportations. As head of the Department of Justice, Sessions would have the ability to direct national resources toward the currently backlogged immigration courts. By encouraging federal prosecutors to increase the number of criminal cases brought against undocumented immigrants and by hiring more right-leaning judges for federal immigration courts, Sessions would have the power to speed up the removal proceedings for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Additionally, with Sessions as Attorney General, Trump could withhold federal funding from more than 200 self-proclaimed sanctuary cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, which offer refuge to undocumented immigrants in order to force local governments to share information and more fully cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On a contrasting note, House Speaker Paul Ryan assured many fearful Americans that the President-elect’s administration would not direct efforts toward Trump’s “deportation task force,” stating on CNN’s State of the Union, “We believe an enforcement bill, a border security enforcement bill is really the first priority and that’s what we’re focused on.” Indeed, Trump’s border wall became a major talking point throughout his campaign. Though he often spoke of his wall as a modern feat of architecture during election season, he has since admitted that stretches of the border wall may be guarded by a fence, or left to natural barriers. To help secure the border, Trump states he will hire several thousand new Border Patrol agents and end Obama’s “catch-and-release” policy, instead forcing unauthorized aliens out of the country upon point of entry.

Following his win in the election, however, Trump has seemingly taken a step back on some of his more polarizing campaign promises on immigration. To contrast the hate-inciting rhetoric he employed earlier in his campaign, Trump has offered that, upon completion of the fortified border wall/fence, he may soften his policies on deportation. During his 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl, he stated, “After the border is secure and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that they’re talking about who are terrific people, they’re terrific people, but we are going make a determination,” though the implications of this position remain unclear. Moreover, while Trump has in the past portrayed undocumented immigrants in a broadly negative light (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” though, “some of them,” he assumes, “are nice people”) his tone appeared more nuanced in his 60 Minutes interview. He stated:

“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we’re going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country, they’re here illegally.”

Though the figures he presented in the interview have been disputed by immigration experts for being exaggerated (Pew Research Center estimates the total number of undocumented immigrants at 11 million – of that number, about 800,000 are criminals), Trump’s decision to focus deportation efforts on undocumented immigrants with criminal records may alleviate the concerns felt in his initial anti-immigration rhetoric. What’s more, his plan to focus deportation efforts on so-called “bad hombres” is not so unfamiliar to Washington – Obama has similarly directed efforts toward removing criminal immigrants from the U.S.

Speaking on immigration in his final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump praised Obama’s deportation numbers. “President Obama has moved millions of people out,” he stated, “Nobody knows about it. Nobody talks about it, but under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country. They’ve been deported.” Over the past decade, federal enforcement rates on deportation have steadily increased. With the removal of nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants during his two presidential terms, Obama stands to become the U.S. President with the greatest number of deportations enforced in history. In regards to Trump’s comments on 60 Minutes, Migration Policy Institute director Muzafar Chishti expressed, “What he’s saying is sort of consistent with present policy,” given that he achieves his goal of 2 to 3 million deportations over the duration of his presidency.

Looking toward 2017, the forecast for the future of U.S. immigration policy remains uncertain. Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump embodies an unpredictable storm of pandering and promises, ever-shifting with the winds of public opinion. Though policy experts may construct an idea of what Trump’s presidency will look like through his public statements, interviews, and contributions from his advisors and allies, millions of undocumented immigrants must play the waiting game to see what their future truly holds.


About Erin Campbell

Erin Campbell is a senior at American University double majoring in Spanish and International Studies. In her studies, she has developed a concentration in human rights and Latin America. During her junior year, she spent time studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Edinburgh, Scotland. Erin is a staff writer for the Americas column with the World Mind.