The radical immigration changes under Trump that went unnoticed

Who makes the rules?
Who makes the rules?
Image: AP Photo/Fernando Llano
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ever since US president Donald Trump took office, his administration has pursued radical anti-immigration policies that have garnered global attention. The government has separated families, detained children, and even used force to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the southern border. At one point the president suggested shooting migrants in order to stop them.

But many of the administration’s other immigration policy changes have been more incremental, and have garnered far less attention from the press and public. Yet they are no less consequential. Below is a look at some of the most significant examples.

Social media tracking

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its plan to require migrants list their social media accounts on immigration forms. The goal is to monitor and keep record of their social media activity. Although the monitoring isn’t supposed to apply to naturalized citizens, the information collected could influence the success of their applications for citizenship: conversations and comments made on social media may be scrutinized and interpreted to find reasons to deny the application.

Immigrants who successfully become citizens won’t be further monitored, DHS says. But a history of their social media interactions prior to their citizenship will be kept on file. That detail is worrisome in light of the administration’s push to denaturalize citizens, which includes investigating old records in search of inconsistencies on applications the government could interpret as fraud.

Increased denaturalization efforts

According to the ACLU (pdf), since 2017, the administration has been investing in a far-reaching denaturalization campaign. The government is investigating naturalized citizens searching for inconsistencies in their applications or activity in their lives that my allow the government to strip them of their citizenship and deport them.

These investigations are expensive, and typically yield minimal results. In the years between 2004 and 2016, about 40 people were denaturalized per year. In 2017 and 2018, despite far more investment in the denaturalizations campaign, fewer than 100 citizens were found to have obtained their status irregularly. Still, as the administration keeps up its 2017 promise that “civil denaturalization will play a prominent role in securing the integrity of our immigration system,” it requested more than $200 million to investigate some 887 leads into potentially irregular naturalization, and to review about 700,000 files in 2019.

Expansion of “public charge” definition

In a move that will hit low- and middle-income immigrants most, the administration expanded the definition of “public charge,” which describes a condition in which immigrants are denied entry because they are likely to require financial support from the government. The new rule, which went into effect in October, established that a “public charge” refers to someone who receives public benefits for more than 12 months out of 36. The benefits are also aggregated, which means that two benefits in the same month count as two months. Among the benefits are Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, and rental support. Children are exempt from the rule.

The new policy doesn’t only apply to people who have already received benefits, either. Immigration officials now assess things like age, health, skills, or assets of an applicant to determine if at any point they are likely to become a public charge. Officials can now deny visas or adjustment statuses accordingly.

Domestic violence no longer grounds for asylum

In 2018, attorney general Jeff Sessions announced that, contrary to international asylum law, migrants who were victims of “private” crimes in their home countries would no longer qualify as refugees in the United States. The change predominantly affects women fleeing domestic or gender violence in their home countries. The failure of their country’s government to protect them and prosecute the crime, Sessions said last year, is no longer a reason to offer them refuge.

Limits to Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

There are a list of countries, typically ones affected by catastrophic events such as natural disasters or wars, whose citizens are offered a temporary permit to stay in the United States. It’s called Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The Trump administration has tried to end the program for several countries—Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador—but so far a court has prevented the change. The final resolution is still pending, and while the status has been renewed till 2021, a reversal of the court decision would result in a termination of TPS. The administration has also pursued termination of TPS for Nepal and Honduras, although both are now halted until further notice.

The US government is now also extending TPS to fewer countries. For example, it didn’t grant TPS to citizens of the Bahamas after hurricane Dorian devastated the nation in September.

Secret policies

Among the Trump administration’s changes to immigration laws and policies, arguably the ones that present the biggest challenges to immigrants are the ones the administration doesn’t publicize. Immigration changes that are published, no matter how drastic, at least give immigrants and legal experts some clarity as to what is happening and why, and a chance to respond. But there have been important changes in the last few years that haven’t been publicized, surprising those affected and leaving them scrambling to navigate an already complex system.

One example is the so-called “credible fear interviews,” which are preliminary interviews made to determine whether asylum seekers have a good reason to need asylum in the United States. These interviews are supposed to be conducted by experts. Until July, those experts determined that 97% of asylum applicants had enough standing to start their application (which doesn’t mean they would ultimately be granted asylum). Since July, only 10% have been allowed to start their applications.

The drop is mostly due to a new rule, challenged in court, that would prevent people who didn’t apply for asylum in their country of transit (for instance, Mexico) from applying in the United States. Advocates say that there are other factors too. Interviews, for instance, are now being conducted by Border Patrol officers rather than asylum specialists.

But according to a lawsuit filed in September, there is something else behind the drastic drop in successful credible fear interviews. The new policies are not published, making it essentially impossible for immigrants to be aware of the procedures and requirements, and prepare accordingly.