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2019 Year Review: Three Years In, Trump’s Assault on Immigrants is Only Intensifying

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Originally published as a mid-year review on July 28, 2019; updated on December 18, 2019

From the moment Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to launch his presidential bid in 2015, his attacks on immigrants have been unrelenting. Throughout 2019, the Trump Administration continued its cruel pattern of kicking out immigrants already here and keeping out new arrivals. Below, we recap the most important changes the Administration made in immigration this year. 

(Read our recaps of the Administration’s cruel and inhumane policy changes in 2017 and 2018 here and here.)

Three years of dehumanizing immigrants and practicing a deterrence-only strategy has produced a humanitarian crisis at the border and created a culture inside the Trump Administration where children are denied soap and toothbrushes and where some migrants have no access to running water. Thousands of children have been separated from their families. Tens of thousands of asylum-seeking families are forced to wait in dangerous and unsanitary conditions in Mexico for months on end. Thousands of CBP agents are members of a blatantly racist and sexist Facebook group.  

A majority of the American people do not support the Administration’s cruelty and chaos, with 62 percent disapproving of how Trump has handled immigration. And a record-high 76 percent of Americans think immigration is a good thing — a number that has been steadily rising throughout Trump’s presidency. 

Here is a summary of how the White House has changed immigration policy in 2019:

Family separation

In April 2018, the Administration announced their “zero-tolerance” policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their families. Two months later, a court mandated the immediate reunification of the 2,737 children the Administration had identified as separated. However, an OIG report released in January 2019 said that “thousands” more children than previously recognized had been taken away from their parents. In May, a court-ordered review found at least  1,712 more children who had been separated. In October, the number of separated children was again revised, bringing the total to more than 5,400. Shockingly, a DHS Inspector General report this year revealed the Administration had initially expected to separate even more families — as many as 26,000 children from their parents.

Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was known for lying to Congress about the family separation policy and the conditions that children were facing. This year, Chad Wolf became the interim chief of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and reports showed him to be a key architect of the “zero-tolerance” policy. Like his predecessor, Wolf has lied to Congress about his role in family separations; he once compiled a list of policy options for migrants which included family separation as a possibility, but then told Congress that he was uninvolved in the policy.

More reporting this year revealed that the Administration’s family separation policy was made worse by its willful ignorance to the long-term harms suffered by families and children. Buzzfeed reported on internal e-mails which showed Nielsen did not even give agents guidelines on how the policy should be implemented until a full month after it was in effect and well after thousands of children had been separated. Under questioning from Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) in March, 2019, Nielsen said she was unfamiliar with the research of how traumatizing family separation can be.  And in June of this year, NBC News reported that at least one botched reunification resulted in children being held for two nights in a van last July in Texas before being reunited with their families.  

In September, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued two reports on the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody in 2018. One report concluded that over half the facilities allowed employees to work without completed background check results, including employees working with children in custody. The other report noted that the thousands of family separations had created anxiety, fear, and PTSD in the children. The report said “children expressed feelings of fear and guilt and became concerned for their parents’ welfare,” and “children who believed their parents had abandoned them were angry and confused.” Mental health clinicians noted that “some separated children isolated themselves and took longer to adjust to the facility and its routines, for example, refusing to eat or participate in activities.”

Nevertheless, the Administration continues to separate families. A report in March by the New York Times found that more than 200 migrant children have been separated since the Administration supposedly rescinded the zero tolerance policy. In one example, sa migrant woman named Alexa crossed the border with her six-year-old niece at the beginning of this year, fleeing Guatemala after gang members killed most of their family. Even though Alexa raised her niece like she was her own daughter, the Administration separated them at the border, sending her niece to New York while detaining Alexa in Arizona, according to a report from the Guardian.   

Trump has even pushed to formally reinstate the family separation policy despite the fact that it has been a deterrence failure that has prompted outrage from across the country and the world. The Administration has even considered implementing a new version of the policy, which would force migrants to choose between child separation and indefinite family detention.   

Harm to Children

Even beyond the “zero-tolerance” family separation policy, the Administration has shown inhumane levels of cruelty toward migrant children and their families. This year, at least seven children have died in DHS custody or shortly after being released. The White House has argued that providing soap and toothbrushes to children was not necessary to meet basic safety and sanitary standards; refused to give children hot food;  and refused to provide sufficient food, leaving kids to wake up in the middle of the night with hunger pains.  

One doctor who inspected a detention center compared them to “torture facilities” and said that many “infants and children are losing weight because of the quality and quantity of food being provided.” The Border Patrol recently made headlines for refusing to offer flu shots to migrants, leading doctors to protest outside their facilities.

The facilities holding children also keep the lights on 24 hours a day. Some detained minors said they were sexually assaulted and were retaliated against for protesting their treatment. 

The Administration’s treatment of children was condemned by the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet: “As a pediatrician, but also as a mother and a former head of state, I am deeply shocked that children are forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate health care or food, and with poor sanitation conditions,” said Bachelet.  

In addition, lawyers — who have only been able to interview a small fraction of the children held in detention — found children covered in mucus, children taking sole responsibility caring for other children, toddlers who lacked diapers, and children sleeping on cold floors. These conditions led experts to warn of a looming health crisis resulting from the long-term trauma the Administration is inflicting on these children.

The government itself has found unacceptable conditions. One DHS Inspector General’s report found that in three Rio Grande Valley facilities, unaccompanied minors and families had no access to showers, while the children there had limited change of clothes.

The Administration has also wanted to cancel English classes, soccer, and legal aid for unaccompanied child migrants. And some children, upon arrival, have had their critical medicines confiscated and their few personal belongings thrown away. The White House has even considered housing some 1,200 children at Japanese-American internment campsites from WWII.  

In addition to wretched conditions, the Administration has illegally been holding hundreds of children far past the legal limits, subjecting some minors to abject conditions for over three months. The Administration has also sought to roll back protections for children so they can legally detain them for months at a time; fortunately, a federal judge blocked the attempted rule change.  

The dangerous and deplorable conditions brought on the Administration’s Remain in Mexico policy are also being felt by thousands of migrant children who are seeking asylum in the U.S. with their families. A Reuters report in October 2019 found that the U.S. sent 16,000 migrants under the age of 18 back to Mexico, comprising one-third of all the migrants in MPP. This number includes nearly 500 infants.  

Unaccompanied minors, who are supposed to be exempt from MPP, have still been sent back by the program. This exemption has left some families in an impossible situation. Facing horrific conditions and little chance of winning asylum under MPP, some children have crossed on their own, leaving family they may never see again. 

The Administration is not limiting their attacks to recently-arrived migrant children: in May 2019, the White House floated a plan to restrict housing aid in a way that could evict 55,000 children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents from their homes.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

The Trump Administration has continued its attack on Dreamers and DACA recipients even though polls show that over 70 percent of Americans support providing Dreamers a path to citizenship. 

The courts continue to block the Administration’s efforts to end DACA. In May, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed the only lower court ruling that has been made in Trump’s favor on DACA. The court said that Administration’s decision to end DACA was “arbitrary and capricious” — a similar conclusion to the 9th Circuit’s decision from last year. 

In June, the Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision and agreed to the Administration’s request to skip an appeals step and bring DACA before the Court. Oral arguments, which took place in November,  did not indicate one way or the other which way the Court would rule, leaving DACA recipients in limbo until the decision is released in 2020.

The White House has continued to try and attack Dreamers in other ways. They have targeted DACA recipients and their families for detention and deportation. Reporting by Buzzfeed and others found that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) changed a policy in order to deny housing loans to DACA recipients.      

While the House overwhelmingly passed the Dream and Promise Act in June 2019, the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take action. Though Dreamers who have previously had DACA are still able to renew status for now, there are hundreds of thousands of young Dreamers who have aged into the program since 2017 without being able to apply for the protections.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)

The Dream and Promise Act was bundled with legislation protecting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) recipients, so the Republican Senate’s failure to pass the overall bill has also left TPS and DED holders without permanent protections. Many TPS and DED recipients have lived in the U.S. for decades and have U.S. citizen children. Without legislation that adjusts their status, families could be ripped apart — creating another family separation crisis. 

Courts continue to block the Administration’s efforts to end TPS protections. In March, a federal district court ordered that protections for TPS recipients from Nepal and Honduras remain intact, attaching their case to one that extends protections for recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan.  

In August, the Administration extended TPS for Syrians through March 31, 2021.  In November, facing pressure from the public and the courts, the Administration extended TPS designations for  El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan, until as late as January 4, 2021, pending court decisions.

DED protections have also remained intact for now, but they are not covered by the above court orders. Last year, Trump sent a wave of fear throughout the Liberian immigrant community after an abrupt announcement indicating the end of the DED program. Then, just before the extension deadline this year, DHS extended protections for DED recipients for an additional year, securing their status until March 31, 2020. 

Without legislation, however, TPS and DED recipients continue to live in limbo, their lives subject to court rulings and/or the Trump Administration’s next decision on whether to extend status.

Despite repeated calls for the Administration to create a TPS designation for Venezuelans, acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli has indicated that they will not be doing so. In September 2019, after a devastating hurricane hit the Bahamas, Trump responded by denying Bahamians TPS, calling them “bad people,” “gang members,” and “drug dealers.”


Over the last three years, the Trump Administration has escalated its attacks on asylum seekers using a cruel deterrence-only strategy. This year, the White House’s combination of changes has arguably dismantled the entire U.S. asylum system . The Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (MPP) policy has forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for months, in dangerous conditions, while their asylum claims are processed. This process has left migrants in situations that involve rape, murder, and kidnappings, while all but blocking successful asylum claims. The Administration has also been bullying Central American countries into signing  ‘safe third-country’ agreements, forcing asylum seekers to seek status in unsafe countries that don’t have the infrastructure necessary to process their asylum claims.      

Remain in Mexico

At the end of last year, the Administration announced new “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) that forced migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico during the process. In April, courts allowed the Administration to begin the program even as lawsuits were filed against the proposal. By May, the Administration had sent some 6,000 asylum seekers to Mexico to wait, initially telling them they would be in Mexico for 45 days before revising the estimate to a year-long wait.

By November, more than 55,000 asylum seekers had  been removed from the U.S. and were being forced to wait in MPP camps. But as of August 31, well over eight months into the new policy, only two migrants under MPP were granted asylum. And only a dozen asylum claims were granted by October, according to one estimate. Astonishingly, even the rare few who have been granted asylum have not been able to obtain relief, because in several reported cases, even those granted asylum in the U.S. were again sent back to Mexico. 

In other cases, migrants have been sent back to Mexico after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents falsified documents. Part of the MPP agreement states that only migrants with future court dates can be sent back to Mexico; if a migrant has completed the legal process, they are supposed to be paroled into the U.S. or kept in federal custody. But the Los Angeles Times reported that on at least 14 occasions, CBP wrote down fake court dates so they could send the migrants back, again, to Mexico.

Tens of thousands of asylum seekers — many of whom are families with children — sent back under the MPP have faced horrific conditions during their months-long wait. Sending desperate asylum seekers into dangerous cities, without any resources, has led to tragic but predictable outcomes. Migrants face widespread rape, kidnapping, and violent assault. A report from Human Rights First found “over 340 public reports of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP.”  Vice News published a story about an asylum seeker who feared being returned to Mexico under MPP but was sent back anyway; he and his young child were kidnapped by a cartel just five hours later. 

In a 600-person study conducted by the University of California San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center, almost 9 out of 10 of all respondents expressed fear about being returned to Mexico. Their study found “63.9% reported that their persecutor(s) can find and have access to them in Mexico but [they] were returned to Mexico anyway.” Their study also found that 23.1% have been threatened with physical violence, and over half of those threats turned into actual experiences of physical violence. 

There is also  little in the way of shelter, food, or sanitary conditions under MPP. The US Immigration Policy Center study found that 34.5% of migrants under MPP have experienced homelessness. Many are living on the street under tents and blankets and relying on donated food. Finding clean water for drinking and bathing has also been a challenge. There have been reports of pregnant women lacking running water, access to showers, and medical resources unless they are actively in labor. Many migrants have turned to the dangerous and polluted Rio Grande as a last resort. But there have been reports of adults and children developing rashes after bathing in the river.

The same river has also led to many tragic deaths. The desperation condition of migrants being forced to wait is leading some of them to try and cross the Rio Grande without seeking asylum. This has led to tragic deaths like the father and child who drowned in the river in June, and the mother and child who died trying to cross in September.

The situation remains so terrible that U.S. asylum officers have filed suit against the policy, saying that MPP is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our nation.” 

Barring asylum seekers

In July, the Trump Administration announced a new rule change requiring every asylum seeker to seek asylum in any country they cross before reaching the U.S. This would effectively bar all future asylum seekers by requiring them to make their asylum claims in countries that cannot offer them protection and may be scarcely safer than their own home countries.

This rule change is being challenged in court, but an unsigned ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in September allowed the Admininstion to begin implementing the rule while the court case continues.

In addition to the rule change, the Administration had bullied Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras into signing ‘safe third-country’ agreements. These agreements claim that each of these nations are safe places for asylum seekers to settle and migrants must try to claim asylum there if they pass through these countries. However, El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world, while Honduras ranks fifth and Guatemala 16th, according to reporting by Vox. “Guatemala is in no way safe for refugees and asylum seekers, and all the strong-arming in the world won’t make it so,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International.  In fact, these same countries are producing some of the asylum seekers coming to the U.S. seeking safety in the first place.

As the year ends, the Administration has not yet begun implementing the ‘safe third country’ policy in El Salvador or Honduras, but in December the Administration started to send non-Guatemalan migrants to apply for asylum in Guatemala. The Administration’s plan includes a proposal to send asylum seekers to areas including the remote jungle region of Petén, which is in one of the poorest states in Guatemala.

The Guatemalan bishops’ migrant ministry warned against the Administration’s plan to send asylum seekers to the Guatemalan jungle, warning: “We remind people that we are the most violent region which is not at war,” they said, “Petén does not have the ability nor the infrastructure at this time to welcome, protect and integrate asylum-seekers and refugees.” 

And while the Administration first claimed they would only send single adults back to Guatemala under the new program, they have reversed course and begun sending families, including young children, to Guatemala.  

Other asylum changes from the Trump Administration include:

  • A new rule would limit asylum seekers’ ability to prepare a credible fear claim by shortening the amount of time they have to prepare a case. 
  • A different new rule, announced in April, would require asylum seekers to pay a fee to apply for asylum (even though by definition, they are fleeing for their lives). The rule also prohibits judges from releasing migrants from detention on bond and strips asylum seekers of their ability to work while they wait out the months-to-years-long decisions process. 
  • After ending a program that allowed Central American minors to apply for asylum in their home countries (rather than forcing them to make the dangerous trek north), a proposed rule by the Trump Administration will make it even harder for unaccompanied minors to win asylum. The rule would reverse one issued by George W. Bush, allowing unaccompanied minors to have their initial asylum hearing with USCIS rather than forcing them to go through the same adversarial border patrol screening as adults.    
  • The Administration has repeatedly lied about the rate at which asylum seekers show up for their asylum hearings; DHS officials have said that asylum seekers skip out on court dates and disappear into the U.S. In fact, 81 percent of migrants show up for their hearings, and 99 percent of those with legal representation attend their hearings.
  • The new head of USCIS, Ken Cuccinelli, encouraged agents conducting initial asylum screenings to deny more applicants, writing in an email that USCIS needed to do its “part to help stem the crisis and better secure the homeland.”


For the third year in a row, the Trump Administration lowered refugee admissions, setting the cap at record lows. White House senior adviser Stephen Miller has been an ardent proponent of lowering the refugee admission cap each year, and suggested the cap be set at zero for FY 2020, according to Politico. In the end, the cap was set at only 18,000, a new record low. The 2020 cap was an even further cut from FY 2019’s 30,000 cap, the lowest refugee admissions number since the caps were first established in the 1980s.  In October 2019, due to Trump Administration moratoriums, zero refugees were granted admission to the U.S. 

Additionally, Trump signed an unprecedented executive order attempting to block refugee resettlements by requiring written approval from cities and states before refugees can be resettled. However, local officials and residents alike have demonstrated that they want refugees to be resettled in their area. Utah’s Republican Governor, Gary Herbert, responded to Trump’s move by sending a letter calling for more refugees to be settled in his state. And when the County Commission in  Burleigh County, North Dakota, was poised to be the first to reject refugees under the new executive order, residents turned out en masse and persuaded the Commission to open the county to refugees.  

Here are a few of the consequences of the Administration’s changes to our refugee policies:

  • After setting refugees caps to record lows, the Administration sought to further undercut refugees by decimating resettlement budgets. Trump proposed cutting the resettlement budget to one-tenth of its current budget, from $3 billion to just $320 million. 
  • The record low refugee caps has hit Syrians attempting to flee the years-long civil war particularly hard.  While 12,587 Syrian refugees were allowed into the U.S. in FY 2016, only 62 were allowed in FY 2018. 
  • In a reversal of a 2008 agreement, the Trump Administration has sought to target some 7,000 Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the U.S. before 1995 for deportation.  

“Legal” immigration and denying immigrants pathways to legal status and citizenship

The Trump Administration’s assault on asylum and refugee resettlement has only been one plank in its broader attack on “legal” immigration.  (We should remember that seeking asylum is a legal process recognized under domestic and international law.) The Trump Administration has also slowed the legalization process for immigrants already in the U.S. who are trying to obtain permanent status or citizenship, thereby making it harder for people who have the right to be in the country to stay.

New data released this year shows that wait times for green cards and citizenship applications have doubled over the last two years. As David Bier at the CATO Institute wrote, without reforms “wait times will become impossibly long,” rendering such paths useless. 

In August, the Administration issued a new immigration policy that makes it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport crime victims and their families. These victims, who have applied for U visas, typically work  with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, and the lack of protections for them will mean less help for local police and law enforcement.

Last year, the Administration proposed changes to “public charge” policies, suggesting that immigrants who utilize services will have a harder time obtaining permanent resident status or citizenship. In August, the Administration followed through with their suggestion, greatly expanding the definition of who is a “public charge.” A report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 8.3 million children —  many U.S. citizens — could lose both health insurance and food assistance if the change is implemented. And a report by the Migration Policy Institute found that of all the immigrants who came to the U.S. in the past five years, 69 percent  could have been affected by the expanded “public charge” rule change and may have been barred from entry. 

By the time the new rule change was supposed to take effect in October, five separate federal judges had issued preliminary injunctions blocking it from implementation. An appeals court in December partially lifted some of the injunctions, but the “public charge” rule change remains blocked, for now.   

In October of this year, the Administration issued a new proclamation relating to health insurance that would have cut “legal” immigration up to 65 precent.  Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, called the move “nothing less than a legal immigration ban, that stands alongside the Trump administration’s asylum and refugee bans.” The proclamation would bar family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, and employees of U.S. companies, from coming to the United States unless they obtain health insurance within 30 days of arrival. It would also cut access to the diversity visa lottery program, which grants citizens of countries with historically low immigration levels the ability to apply for immigration to the U.S. 

The health care move was “deeply problematic because the President is using extraordinary powers in an unprecedented way to circumvent authority that, normally, only Congress would exercise. In other words, the president has once again acted in an extraordinary way to get around Congress,” said Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and a former USCIS Chief Counsel. 

Again, however, the Administration’s efforts to deter legal immigrants was blocked by the courts. Two separate courts have blocked the health care proclamation from taking effect.   

Immigration court

Following in his predecessor’s footsteps, Attorney General William Barr has continued Jeff Sessions’ efforts to use immigration courts to limit migrants’ ability to remain in the country. Like Sessions, Barr has begun selecting individual cases to personally overrule in order to ensure deportation and set new precedent. In one example, Barr sought to almost entirely eliminate detained migrants’ ability to receive a bond hearing. Barr’s decision received widespread condemnation for its attempt to do away with due process, leading 55 members of Congress to sign a letter opposing the change. The courts agreed: in July, federal courts blocked Barr’s decision and called it an unconstitutional impediment to due process.  

Barr also proposed a new rule change in April that would make it easier for a limited number of judges on the Board of Immigration Appeals to set precedent for the entire system. Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge and former senior legal adviser to the immigration appeals court, said the changes would “add up to taking away due process and speeding people through to their deportation in some sort of assembly-line substitute for justice.” After significant public criticism, Barr slightly amended the rule change, but the Board of Immigration Appeals is now allowed to issue binding decisions about immigration law. This new rule gives the Attorney General more power to direct which appellate decisions should become precedent, shaping all  immigration decisions made by hundreds of immigration judges. 

Asylum seekers are mostly left to navigate the increasingly complex process of claiming asylum on their own. Obtaining legal counsel is extremely difficult for asylum seekers under MPP. Since they are trapped on the other side of the border, many migrants are not able to access U.S.-based attorneys or nonprofit help, and many do not even have the ability to pay for an international call.  Available attorneys are spread thin and face numerous challenges in representing migrants under MPP. The difficulty of obtaining an attorney has meant that less than two percent of the tens of thousands of migrants living under MPP have been able to find a lawyer to represent them in their case.  But a recent court ruling may provide some relief. In November 2019, federal District Judge Dana Sabraw ruled that a Guatemalan family stuck in MPP must be granted access to an attorney before they can be returned to Mexico. The judge said the family would likely suffer “irreparable harm” without an attorney.

Further complicating the issue is the Administration’s use of secretive tent courts along the border. These tent courts rush through MPP asylum cases while barring the media and the public from observing the expedited hearings. “It is just another attempt to cover up the flaws in this sham asylum process, a process created to block refugees from finding safety in the United States,” said Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher in refugee protection at Human Rights First. Numerous members of Congress have called for an investigation of tent courts, calling the public’s inability to witness the hearings a federal violation.

Inside the secretive tent courts, the Administration has set up mass video conference proceedings, with immigration judges being teleconferenced into the tent court. Many immigration judges have been assigned away from their usual cases in order to handle MPP cases, resulting in a ripple effect for the rest of the U.S. immigration system and forcing delays in previously-scheduled asylum and deportation hearings.

These expedited tent court proceedings raise significant due process concerns. The Department of Justice, which oversees immigration courts, told immigration judges they need to hear 80 to 100 MPP cases per session, which typically only last a few hours. This means that migrants are only given minutes to present the case for why they should be allowed to stay, which is far too little time for proper due process. “Everybody’s exhausted, the judge is exhausted, the interpreters are exhausted. There isn’t much room or opportunity to delve beyond very basic issues. So it makes it very difficult for the judges to effectively and fairly go through these cases,” said Ashley Tabaddor, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges. 

Other migrants subjected to MPP are reportedly missing court hearings because critical documents are reaching them in Mexico too late. Court dates and other summons have not been able to reach their intended recipients due to housing instability and CBP’s failure to collect correct contact information. Reportedly, some CBP agents have simply written “Facebook” as the listed address for asylum seekers under MPP.  

Immigration raids and expedited removal

During the Trump Administration, ICE has stepped up workplace raids, and in April, ICE arrested nearly 300 immigrants, mostly women, in one of the largest workplace raids this decade. The raid occurred at CVE Technology Group, a Samsung-vetted repair warehouse just outside of Dallas, Texas. The surrounding community quickly rallied to support the workers and to protest the ICE raid

Under Trump, CBP has also increased searches at Greyhound bus stations, including on buses not even traveling across the U.S. border.  CBP has claimed that they can search any vehicle within 100 miles of the U.S. border without a warrant, but advocates have pointed out that these searches are highly susceptible to racial profiling. One Border Patrol official in Maine told his agents “Happy hunting!” in relation to the Greyhound bus searches.

While the Administration has continued its practice of indiscriminate raids, some officials reportedly pushed back against a plan for an unprecedented nationwide raid targeting thousands of adults and children. The plan was rejected due to logistical and legal concerns, rather than due to ethical arguments. The Administration continues to threaten massive raids and deportations, forcing families to stay at home and avoid routine habits.

In July, the Administration announced a plan for expedited removals, in which they would quickly remove any immigrant who cannot prove legal status or continuous presence in the U.S. for the last two years. As advocates noted, the expedited removals plan is hugely dangerous, because it allows any immigration official to target anyone — U.S. citzen or immigrant, legal or undocumented — and demand proof of status. Those who cannot quickly prove legal status or continuous presence may find themselves detained (with no access to a lawyer) or even deported.

On August 9, ICE conducted a record-setting raid, arresting some 680 undocumented workers in Mississippi. The traumatizing raid was conducted just four days after the white supremacist terrorist attack that targeted Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Even the then-acting Director of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, acknowledged the timing was “unfortunate.” ICE’s plan targeted workers on the first day of school and failed to plan for the children who were left behind after the raid. Many children were left without any adult supervision or answers on what happened to their parents. Months later, NPR reported that fear is still pervasive in the affected community.

This year, courts did limit the extent of the Administration’s deportation powers. In June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an undocumented worker who was arrested in a massive workplace raid in 2008 should not be deported because his arrest was outside the parameters of ICE’s search warrant. Though the raid occurred under the George W. Bush Administration, the tactic of sweeping up hundreds of immigrants in indiscriminate raids has been a recurring event under Trump, and the ruling could provide relief to immigrants who were picked up when they weren’t targets. And, following a 2018 lawsuit, ICE was barred from conducting any more unannounced raids on Cambodian immigrants living in the U.S. with deportation orders. ICE must now give notice 14 days prior to detaining a Cambodian national living in the U.S. — offering some level of protection to some 1,900 Cambodian-Americans with deportation orders, many of whom have lived in the U.S. since they were children.  

Trump’s immigrant workers

Even as ICE has stepped up its workplace raids, it has conspicuously avoided scrutiny of one particular employer: Donald Trump and the Trump Organization. In late December 2018, undocumented housekeepers who worked at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, began speaking out about the golf course’s pattern of hiring and abusing workers without papers. In some cases, supervisors at the golf club even helped immigrant workers procure fake papers. These workers cooked, cleaned, gardened, and helped take care of Trump’s business in Bedminster and other locations — but in return, they were physically and verbally abused, exploited, and (when reporters came knocking) dismissed without warning.

These workers say that there have been hundreds of undocumented workers that have labored for the Trump Organization and that their exploitation has been central to his business model. One former worker from Costa Rica said “my whole town practically lived there,” referring to the pipeline of Central American undocumented workers the Trump Organization used to run its businesses. These workers began speaking out in order to call attention to Trump’s hypocrisy — attacking undocumented immigrants when his own businesses rely on undocumented workers — even though coming forward potentially leaves them at risk of deportation.

Anibal Romero, attorney for the undocumented Trump workers, called Trump’s hiring practices “a criminal conspiracy.” As we laid out elsewhere, the “potential criminal charges against the Trump Organization include trafficking, conspiracy, false document procurement, and forced or coerced labor. The Trump Organization could also be exposed to additional tax, labor, and civil liabilities if the allegations are investigated and found to be true.”

2020 census

In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the Trump Administration over its efforts to add a dubious citizenship question to the 2020 census, saying the Administration’s thinly-veiled excuses were inadequate justification. Despite the ruling, however, the Trump Administration spent several days sending mixed signals and continuing to push forward with the idea, even suggesting an executive order adding the question and switching out the government lawyers who had been arguing the case.

In the months beforehand, new emails had come to light underscoring the political nature of the citizenship question. The emails revealed that the Trump Administration was interested in a citizenship question because of how much it might dampen Latino participation in the census and pad demographic margins for Republicans. The Administration, however, had claimed a different reason as its rationale. Even though the Trump Administration has now seemingly given up the attempt to add a citizenship question, advocates worry that the damage has already been done and that communities of color will resist taking the census.

Safe cities

The Trump Administration has received rebuke after rebuke from the courts for its attempts to strip funding from local governments that have safe-city laws (aka “sanctuary cities”).  In February, a federal judge put a permanent injunction on the Administration’s efforts to make federal funding conditional on immigration enforcement. Praising the decision, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said, the “Trump administration’s efforts to make Los Angeles complicit in civil immigration enforcement undermines local decisions about how we can best keep our streets safe.”

Finding itself blocked on this front, the Administration then announced that it wanted to transport migrants solely to safe cities as a political stunt. Top ICE officials opposed the plan, citing  budgetary and liability concerns with such a move, and noting that there would be “PR risks as well.” Trump continues to favor the proposal, however: “I’m proud to tell you that was actually my sick idea,” Trump said at an April rally.

In May, the Administration created a new workaround to deputize local police officers as immigration agents. Created by ICE, the new Warrant Service Officer program (WSO) is meant to act as 287(g) agreements for rural areas.  Like the controversial 287(g) program, the WSO program allows local law enforcement departments to hold immigrants after they would otherwise be released, if asked to do so by ICE. And like the 287(g) agreements, the WSO program is being challenged over its unnecessary costs and dubious legality. Some municipalities are joining WSO, while others are pulling out after mounting community pressure to do so. 

In October, Davidson County, Tennessee, ended its cooperation with ICE.  “Taking into consideration our important public safety role and our goal of being community-minded, we have always worked to see our policies evolve accordingly,”  Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall said after ending the county’s participation.

2020 election fear-mongering

Trump’s reelection campaign kick-off made it clear that he will again employ a divisive strategy of anti-immigrant fear-mongering in 2020 in order to turn out his base. Long before Trump’s official kick-off, the campaign had been spending millions of dollars on Facebook, targeting older voters with nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and themes. By April 2019, Trump’s campaign had spent $4.5 million on Facebook and Google ads, and well over half (54 percent) of these ads involved fears about immigration.

New reporting this year found that Trump has referred to immigrants as “aliens,” “killers,” and “criminals” over 500 times at his rallies since 2017. Additionally, his campaign ads used the term “invasion” over 2,000 times to characterize migrants seeking to come to the U.S. This dehumanizing rhetoric has, alarmingly, been echoed by white nationalist terrorists this year.      

Trump is apparently committed to his racist ad strategy despite its connections to white nationalism — and despite evidence that the strategy failed in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In both the 2017 election (in states like Virginia and New Jersey) and the 2018 midterms, fear-mongering was not a winning strategy for Republican candidates: many of those who ran extremist campaigns lost as the ugly rhetoric motivated pro-immigrant voters of color to turn out. This year candidates for governor in Kentucky and Louisiana both lost despite efforts to turn out voters by attacking immigrants.  Even with Trump on the ballot in 2020, his nativist strategy to double down on supporters while doing nothing to attract moderates is unlikely to help down-ticket Republicans.

Detention, deportations, and ICE and CBP abuses

Three years of dehumanizing rhetoric and a complete lack of accountability have produced abhorrent cultures inside both Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Under the leadership of the anti-immigrant Ken Cuccinelli,  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now being turned into a nativist attack arm of the Trump Administration. Under the Trump Administration, seven children have died in DHS custody, after not immediately being treated for symptoms or after being held for extended periods of time. This year, we also saw evidence of CBP negligence, which caused the needless death of 16-year old Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vazquez, who was left for hours in his cell despite having a high fever. CBP appears to have altered a video showing his last hours of life.

Twenty-nine adults have also died in DHS custody over the last three years. Reports from migrants held in custody, lawyers, doctors, members of Congress, and even the government itself has documented a mountain of abuses from these agencies.  Here are some of the lowlights of abuses towards immigrants 2019:

  • A group of some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents were part of a secret Facebook group where they made racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments, including “joking” about migrant deaths and attacking members of Congress. Chief of the Border Patrol Carla Provost was actually a member of the group — dispelling any notion that this group was limited in reach or that higher-level officials were unaware of its existence. In a post about 16-year-old Carlos Hernández Vásquez, group members replied “oh well” and, “if he dies, he dies.” 
  • ICE has begun to threaten immigrants  who have sought sanctuary in churches with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
  • Texts between CBP officers referring to migrants as “Guats,” “tonks,” and “subhuman shit” were released this year in the midst of the trial of a CBP officer charged with hitting a migrant with his government-issued vehicle.
  • A DHS whistleblower and investigative reporting by the Intercept found ICE was frequently putting migrants in solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks at a time for little to no reason, exacerbating mental health issues.     
  • ICE has begun to use facial recognition software on millions of state-issued IDs to look for undocumented immigrants, setting off major privacy concerns. Additionally, CBP is using facial recognition scanners at airports to look for immigrants who have overstayed their visa.    
  • The DHS Inspector General reported on the horrific and overcrowded conditions inside several detention facilities. The report found that migrants, including children, were given wet wipes instead of showers, packed into cells without enough room to lay down, and lacked hot food and running water.
  • CBP agents have been circulating a commemorative coin that mocks their care of migrant children. 
  • CBP and ICE are denying health care for migrants, treating them as felons even though they are only being detained for immigration violations and many are newly-arrived asylum seekers. The agents have shackled patients to beds, denied them use of bathrooms, and pressured doctors to discharge patients more quickly than normal. 
  • CBP detained over a hundred migrants under a bridge outside El Paso, Texas — some for as long a month despite being held outside the whole time. They were unable to wash and forced to keep wearing the same clothes they had on when they were detained.  
  • Two separate DHS Inspector General reports documented dangerously overcrowded conditions for migrants, including cells meant for 12 people that held 76 migrant women, and another meant for 35 that was holding 155.
  • CBP kept migrant families outside and forced some to sleep in water or on hard pavement, with little shelter and poor food in McAllen, Texas.
  • ICE has targeted black Mauritanian immigrants for deportation, putting their lives in danger since their home country does not recognize them as citizens.
  • ICE deported a former member of MS-13 who was twice forced to join the gang, but who had secretly helped an FBI task force to fight the gang. Agents inside the FBI said in a report that Trump’s focus on deportations has hampered their ability to fight the gang.
  • ICE detained a Latino U.S. Marine even though he was a U.S. citizen. ICE has also failed to take prior military service into account before deporting veterans or their families.  
  • ICE began force feeding six migrants during a hunger strike at the El Paso Processing Center in January; the migrants were protesting the constant verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards.
  • In an attempt catch undocumented immigrants trying to futher their education, ICE set up a fake university to lure would-be students into giving ICE their personal information. 
  • LGBT migrants have long highlighted the extra abuse they suffer in detention; this year, migrants have reported being put into solitary confinement after they complained about harassment. Before their untimely death in U.S. custody, Johana Medina León, a transgender migrant, asked to be deported due to the lack of proper medical care. 
  • The ACLU has also alleged that ICE and CBP have been confiscating religious texts and items and forcing Muslim migrants to eat pork.  
  • ICE and CBP have even locked up U.S. citizens; in July, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen was detained for three weeks, during which he was not allowed to shower and lost some 26 pounds due to inadequate food. CBP detained him at a border checkpoint even though he showed documents demonstrating his status, and kept him for weeks even after his mother provided supplemental proof.
  • USCIS officers started to use fake social media accounts to find people who entered the country without authorization. 
  • In August, without any notice, USCIS said they would eliminate a “deferred action” program that allows immigrants receiving life saving treatment to remain in the country. Many had rare medical conditions and came to the U.S. to help doctors develop life saving treatments. Fortunately, immense pressure forced the Administration to reverse this aggressive and cruel move. But in November, acting USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli refused to commit to protecting these immigrants in the long term.
  • Also in August, USCIS  announced it would limit the ability for children of U.S. servicemembers living or working overseas to be granted automatic U.S. citizenship. Similarly, this unnecessary and cruel policy was taken back by the Administration after a sharp backlash.  

Trump’s unnecessary wall 

Trump’s obsession with a border wall began as a campaign mnemonic device, then turned into a racist rally chant — but one thing the border wall has never been about has been national security. Trump started the year with a 35-day government shutdown, the longest in history, in an attempt to secure money for his wall. Ultimately, Trump agreed to almost the exact same deal he was offered before he shut down the government.

After the government shutdown failed to produce the full results Trump wanted, Trump announced a fake national emergency in an attempt to usurp Congress’ power of the purse. His stunt threatened the Constitutional balance of powers, and national security experts warned that Trump’s fake emergency undermined national security. Trump even declared, while making the national emergency announcement, that he knew such a move was unnecessary. His national emergency was widely opposed by the American people, with thousands taking to the streets to oppose the move. Both houses of Congress voted against the declaration — twice — forcing Trump to issue his first-ever veto. Trump’s fake emergency allowed the government to divert funds from already-approved military construction projects including firehouses and schools.

A ruling by the 9th Circuit found that we are “best served by respecting the Constitution’s assignment of the power of the purse to Congress, and by deferring to Congress’s understanding of the public interest as reflected in its repeated denial of more funding for border barrier construction”.  But in July, the Supreme Court unfortunately agreed that Trump could begin taking money from military projects to fund his wall. However, in December, a federal judge in Texas again temporarily blocked diversion of military funds to build Trump’s wall. 

Trump’s failure to build his wall so far has not stopped him from claiming victory. One of Trump’s most frequent lies involves the deception that his border wall is being built, and he has repeated this lie 172 times between the start of his Administration and June 2019.

In lieu of building his wall, Trump has continued to deploy an unnecessary number of troops to the southern border, where they have, among other things, painted barriers already in place to make them more aesthetically pleasing. 

In November, Trump began preparing to seize land along the border that is currently privately owned by Texas families.  Trump appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of beginning eminent domain claims to the border land, some of which has been owned by the same families for generations.

Trump has also awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for wall construction to his friends. The Washington Post reported that Trump “personally and repeatedly” urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award a $268 million border wall contract to a North Dakota firm whose top executive is a GOP donor. Tommy Fisher, who runs the North Dakota firm, also lobbied for the contract repeatedly on Fox News and even began building the wall on private land before he was approved to start wall construction. 

Notable personnel changes

The Department of Homeland Security, under Trump, is being staffed by a chaotic, rotating cast of characters who have served as temporary acting leaders of various agencies. This has allowed the White House to bypass the Senate on confirmation-necessary positions, even for sensitive and critical jobs. Many of the Administration’s appointees have been distinguished less by their qualifications and more by their outspoken support of the Trump Administration via regular appearances on cable news programs. A number of Department of Homeland Security officials were purged earlier this year by Stephen Miller, arguably the most powerful Administration official to hold onto his post throughout the Trump presidency so far. Here is a list of the notable immigration-related personnel changes:

  • Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as Secretary of Homeland Security as part of the Stephen Miller purge in April. Her current acting replacement is former CBP chief Kevin McAleenan. In October McAleenan was forced to resign, and was replaced by Chad Wolf.  
  • Lee Francis Cissna resigned as Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), also in April. Cissna was considered one of the most effective members of the Administration at putting Trump’s anti-immigrant ideas into practice. He was replaced the more bombastic anti-immigrant extremist Ken Cuccinelli as acting director.
  • Ronald Vitiello resigned in April as the acting director of ICE. Vitiello was replaced by Mark Morgan, who had spent the previous several months auditioning for the job by appearing as an anti-immigrant extremist on cable TV.
  • After less than a full month on the job, Trump moved Morgan from acting director of ICE to acting director of CBP, after John Sanders resigned from the latter position. 
  • Matthew Albence, who once compared family immigration detention to “summer camp”, was tapped to run ICE in April. He remains the acting director of ICE, after the brief term of Mark Morgan.   
  • Nominated at the end of last year to replace Jeff Sessions, William Barr was one of the rare Trump Administration officials to actually receive Senate confirmation. On immigration, Barr has continued Sessions’ anti-immigrant agenda. 
  • In May, Scott Lloyd resigned from the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee office. Lloyd was part of the mismanaged effort to reunite separated migrant families and failed to alert HHS leaders about the health risks and mental health concerns resulting from the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy.

Anti-immigrant hate groups and white nationalism

The Trump Administration continues to have a white nationalist problem, not least of which is the continued presence of white nationalist Stephen Miller.  This year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released 900 leaked emails from Stephen Miller demonstrating his white nationalist tendencies. The Trump Administration continues to expand its relationships with hate groups and white nationalists. Here are some of the new connections:

Fighting with our neighbors 

The Trump Administration has employed an all-stick-no-carrot approach to the flow of asylum seekers at our southern border. In June, Trump cut hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, in a wrong-headed attempt to stop migrants. (Experts agree that more aid to the Central American region is necessary to decrease outflows.) Trump’s final cuts were slightly less than originally announced, but five former US military chiefs and more than one hundred members of Congress condemned the moves. The money was traded for ‘safe third country’ agreements with Central American nations that will likely end asylum as we know it.  

In another ill advised effort, Trump has also lashed out at Mexico, threatening to implement tariffs if they didn’t block more migrants seeking asylum from reaching the U.S. border. The Mexican government sent thousands of members of their national guard to the border as a response to Trump’s threat.

As conflict and instability swirls in Venezuela, the Administration has been happy to play politics and hint at intervention in the region, but it has refused to extend TPS protections to Venezuelans in the U.S., which would protect them from possible deportation.

Did we miss something or get something wrong? Let us know here.

Check out our short video recap of the changes to immigration over the last three years of the Trump Administration.