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A Year of Seismic Shifts in Immigration Policy

In the past year, there’s been new border and immigration news from the federal government nearly every week. But there are a few things that have changed under President Donald Trump that stand out to immigration experts as significant shifts.

A family on the Tijuana side peaks through the fence separating the United States and Mexico. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For better or worse, President Donald Trump may be the first politician in recent memory who has actually made big changes to the immigration system.

“We’ve been trying to reform our immigration system for decades now and nothing has been done,” said Sara Pierce, an associate policy analyst with the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “The longer we wait, the more important it gets to reform the immigration system, but the more uncomfortable and complicated the situation becomes.”

Days after entering office, Trump signed executive orders to commence work on a nearly 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol officers. In the past year, there’s been new border and immigration news from the federal government nearly every week.

But there are a few things that have changed under Trump that stand out to immigration experts as significant shifts.

Zero Tolerance

Under President Barack Obama – if you were undocumented, but had not committed a crime and had been in the United States for a while, you were usually not a priority for immigration enforcement or deportation.

Because of the large number of undocumented immigrants living in the country, the limited number of resources to go after them and the sympathy for those who had been able to start a life here, past administrations decided they would prioritize undocumented immigrants who had committed other crimes or who were caught after recently having crossed the border.

That’s the idea behind programs like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shields people who were brought into the country illegally as children from deportation, and Temporary Protected Status, which temporarily shields people from certain countries experiencing upheaval such as civil war or natural disasters who come here seeking safety.

That has changed.

“The Obama administration worked really hard to narrow who they were focusing immigration laws against,” Pierce said. “By the end, it was very narrowly tailored for people who had recently illegal crossed or criminals. If you were an unauthorized migrant who was in the U.S. for a while and hadn’t committed a crime, you could live in relative comfort. The Trump administration has blown up that comfort.”

The Trump administration is rolling back many of the protections that kept certain groups as low priorities for immigration enforcement. It also has removed discretion at the ground level that many agents once had.

Ginger Jacobs, a local immigration attorney, said that means that there are more people in detention and more cases being fought out in court.

“There’s less day-to-day discretion for your immigration officer on the street or the ICE attorney,” Jacobs said.

The policy has led to increased arrests, and the Department of Homeland Security is reportedly seeking expansions and additional space for detention centers throughout the country.

Counterintuitively, actual deportations are down even as immigration-related arrests are up. That’s because immigration courts are facing a growing backlog as new cases clog the system.

The Travel Ban

The Trump administration’s travel ban, which in the most current iteration bars most citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea and some groups of people from Venezuela from emigrating to the United States, is unprecedented, said Pierce.

“It’s completely unique,” Pierce said. “There is nothing to compare it against.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled the policy could go into effect while the courts evaluate its merit, which could happen as early as 2018.

In February, the San Diego City Council decided to join other jurisdictions around the country in an amicus brief to support the case challenging the ban, State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, et al.

All Eyes on Sanctuary Jurisdictions

For the most part, states have discretion as to how they enforce laws.

Some states and local jurisdictions have chosen not to cooperate with federal officials on matters of immigration enforcement.

The state of California doubled down on its resistance to forcing local and state officials to do federal immigration work this year through Senate Bill 54, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October.

For its part, the Trump administration is trying to encourage – or coerce, depending on your point of view – local cooperation through the use of federal grant money.

“The level of enforcement and enthusiasm for immigration enforcement has become very personal from city to city, jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Pierce said. “We’re seeing the [Department of Justice] kind of manipulate grants and try to get cooperation.”

A federal judge in September ruled efforts to withhold grant money from sanctuary jurisdictions unconstitutional.

But in November, the Justice Department sent dozens of states, counties and cities notices, demanding they show how they’re cooperating with federal laws by sharing information with immigration authorities – meaning the federal government’s efforts to force “sanctuary” jurisdictions to comply aren’t over.

In September, ICE also announced hundreds of arrests in an operation targeting so-called “sanctuary” communities, many of which were made in California cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.

It’s still unclear how much protection a sanctuary label provides to immigrant communities and how successful the federal government can be in punishing cities for trying. After all, though San Diego officials have professed support for immigrants and discourage local police from carrying out immigration enforcement, San Diego’s ICE field office still removed 23,729 people from the United States in fiscal year 2016, including 12,857 who had no criminal convictions.

There is still some cooperation between local law enforcement and federal law enforcement, including in San Diego, such as when the Sheriff’s Department called Border Patrol on a couple it stopped near Mission Bay earlier this year.

Sharp Scrutiny on Legal Immigrants and Refugees

It’s not just undocumented immigrants facing a crackdown. Legal immigration and refugee programs are also under the microscope under Trump.

In September, the administration dropped the nation’s refugee cap to 45,000 – the lowest it’s been in years, said Pierce.

That has an outsize impact in San Diego County, which was the No. 1 destination for refugees last year, according to KPBS.

Jacobs, the San Diego-based immigration attorney, said another significant change she’s noticed is a crackdown on temporary work visas.

“I’ve seen a big increase in fraud detection in H1-B and investor visas,” Jacobs said. “There seems to be an increase in work-site visits, especially for smaller companies.”

H1-B visas are often used by tech companies, like Qualcomm and Southern California Edison. The program has come under scrutiny for using cheaper foreign workers to replace American employees. Last year, Reps. Scott Peters and Darrell Issa cosponsored a bill that tried to tackle that problem.

Indeed, there seems to be tighter scrutiny on high-skilled worker visas nationwide, including but not limited to H1-B, and an increase in site visits by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.

The White House threw its support behind the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, legislation that would cut legal immigration to the United States by 50 percent over a decade.

Next year, expect a continued push to change the largely family-based immigration system to one that’s more merit-based.

In a family-based system, permanent residents can sponsor relatives from their home country to come to the United States. A merit-based system would prioritize other things such as a person’s job offers from U.S. companies, past achievements, language abilities and education.

Of the more than 1 million permanent residents who were admitted to the United States in 2015, 44 percent were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 20 percent entered through a family-sponsored preference and 14 percent entered on job-based visas, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

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