With a couple of strokes of his pen, President Trump wiped out almost all of President Obama’s immigration policies on Wednesday, laying the groundwork for his signature wall along the Mexican border, unleashing immigration agents to enforce the law and punishing “sanctuary cities” that try to defy federal law and thwart his deportation surge.
Left untouched, for now, is Mr. Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty that is shielding more than 750,000 Dreamers.
But most of Mr. Obama’s other policies, including his “priorities” list that protected almost all illegal immigrants from deportation, are now gone. In their place is a series of directives that would free border agents to enforce long-forgotten but punitive parts of the law beyond the border; encourage Mexico to take a more active role in discouraging illegal migration; and close the loopholes that illegal immigrants have learned to exploit to gain a foothold in the U.S.
“From here on out, I’m asking all of you to enforce the laws of the United States of America — they will be enforced, and enforced strongly,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday during a visit to the Homeland Security Department’s headquarters. “We do not need new laws. We will work within the existing system and framework.”
He called for adding 5,000 more U.S. Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to the payroll — his promised “deportation force” — and released his own set of priorities that put many more illegal immigrants in danger of being kicked out and give plenty of discretion to agents to decide how to handle the cases.
He also proposed a weekly name-and-shame list of sanctuary cities and the criminals they are releasing, saying communities deserve to see who is being let back onto their streets because their local leaders refuse to cooperate with immigration agents.
Mr. Trump didn’t break legal ground, but instead pushed agents to aggressively wield the tools Congress gave them over the years to enforce laws. The goal, both sides of the debate said, is to push the U.S. border farther south, preventing migrants from gaining a foothold in the U.S.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the moves “constitutionally suspect,” while immigration lawyers said the orders will spark a humanitarian disaster, making it tougher for those with legitimate claims to refugee or asylum status to get into the country and get approved.
They also said unleashing agents to target rank-and-file illegal immigrants, rather than only criminals, will leave all sides less safe.
“This is basically saying, ‘Go out and find who you can find,’” said David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who said agents will focus on “low-hanging fruit” to make quotas rather than go after the serious criminals who pose the biggest danger to public safety. “The people who need to be removed and the people who may pose a national security threat — there’s less resources to go after them. This is a disaster because it creates a much more dangerous situation. It’s enforcement chaos.”
Immigrant rights groups vowed resistance to Mr. Trump’s policies, urging sanctuary cities — including major urban centers such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago and the District of Columbia — to hold firm in the face of Mr. Trump’s threat to strip them of federal funds.
Enforcing the law
Mr. Trump’s policy was laid out in two executive orders: one dealing with the border and the other with interior enforcement.
The orders would use existing federal laws to encourage foreign governments to take back their citizens. Tens of thousands of criminals are released on U.S. streets because their home countries are refusing to take them. Cuba is the worst offender, with nearly 30,000.
Visas will be stripped from countries that refuse to cooperate.
Though it has proved to be a powerful tool, the Obama administration was reluctant to use it. Mr. Obama pulled the trigger only once, in the waning days of his presidency, with the small African nation of Gambia.
On sanctuary cities, Mr. Trump said he would try to dry up federal money that flows to jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with immigration agents. Hundreds of counties and cities have policies protecting illegal immigrants, to varying degrees, from the reach of federal enforcement efforts.
The executive order calls on Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and the new attorney general to cut off all federal funding they control under existing federal laws.
Overall, the orders try to create tougher physical and legal barriers to cross the southwestern border.
Part of that is Mr. Trump’s wall, which the White House said the U.S. will finance — at least for now. But White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that “yes, one way or another, as the president has said before, Mexico will pay for it.”
Mexican officials seemed stunned by the breadth of Mr. Trump’s plans, and one official told The Associated Press that President Enrique Pena Nieto was considering calling off a planned Jan. 31 visit to Washington in retaliation.
Mexico has a number of options if Mr. Trump follows through on his orders. One directive would tap a little-known section of immigration law that allows illegal immigrants to be quickly transferred back across the border while their deportation cases go through the courts, rather than waiting inside the U.S., where they often disappear into the shadows.
For most border jumpers, that would mean going back to Mexico to wait.
The executive orders also push Homeland Security officials to “immediately plan, design and construct a physical wall along the southwest border.” The order says to use “appropriate materials” — which seems to suggest fencing rather than the actual wall Mr. Trump has described.
Beyond the barriers, Mr. Trump’s orders seem designed to stop the loopholes that have emerged in recent years that allow illegal immigrants to come to the border, be caught, and then be released into the interior of the U.S.
Mr. Trump also called for construction of detention facilities so illegal immigrants can be held rather than released.
Jessica Vaughan, a security analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the huge reach of the president’s plans is also a testament to just how far Mr. Obama went in trying to halt immigration enforcement.
“We needed more than tweaks; we needed renovation and a course change. We’re getting it,” she said. “This is one big reason voters chose him. This is such a huge improvement over the token attention to the border, and the pablum that so many politicians have spooned out to voters.”
Mr. Trump campaigned on getting control of illegal immigration, running the strictest enforcement campaign of any major-party nominee in modern history.
His orders Wednesday are large steps toward his promises, though he did not revoke the 2012 deportation amnesty known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Under that policy, more than 750,000 Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents, have gained tentative legal status.
They are the most sympathetic cases in the immigration debate, and despite Mr. Trump’s promise to cancel the policy on “Day One,” he has put it off.
Still, immigrant rights groups said the steps Mr. Trump has taken were bad enough for the people they represent.
“These policies are a flagrant attack on immigrants and our values as Americans. Our laws dictate that everyone receives a just and fair process, whether they have been in this country for decades or are arriving today in search of safety and protection,” said Beth Werlin, executive director of the American Immigration Council.
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