WHY CAN’T UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS JUST “GET LEGAL?” AND OTHER IMMIGRATION REFORM FAQ (FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS)
Updated October 2019
Table of Contents
- Who are the undocumented?
- Why do some immigrants come without papers?
- Why can’t immigrants just “get legal”?
- How do immigrants get deported?
- Why don’t we use the term “illegal immigrant”?
- What’s a Dreamer?
- What is temporary protected status or TPS?
- Comprehensive immigration reform includes…
- How states can support immigrants
- How immigration reform helps the U.S. and underscores American values
- NEW: What’s going on with the separation of children and families at the border?
- How opponents of immigration reform conflate immigrants with crime
- The border and the border wall
- What are deportation priorities?
- Immigration and the economy
- What is a “sanctuary city”?
- ICE, CBP, and DHS
- Before Obama
- What has Congress done to fix our broken immigration system?
- Notable Members of Congress opposed to immigration reform
- John Tanton’s network: CIS, FAIR, NumbersUSA
Want to watch our Immigration 101 video series?
I. IMMIGRATION 101
Who are the undocumented?
Currently, there are approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. These 11.5 million people are spouses, parents, children, Dreamers, coworkers, and neighbors who don’t have the correct paperwork to be present in the U.S. Here are some facts about immigrants and their families:
- 85 percent of Latino undocumented immigrants have at least one family member who is a U.S. citizen
- Of this group, 62 percent have a U.S. citizen child and 13 percent have a U.S. citizen spouse
- 16.6 million people in the U.S. live with at least one undocumented immigrant in the household
- Some 40 percent of undocumented immigrants entered legally and then overstayed their visa (as opposed to crossing a border without papers)
- Two-thirds of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been here for over a decade
- The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. peaked around 2008 and has been stable ever since. Border crossings have been falling for 17 years
The presence of these 11.5 million aspiring citizens with no pathway to citizenship demonstrates the brokenness of the current immigration system and the need for systemic, comprehensive immigration reform.
Resource: New York Times, “Here’s the Reality About Immigrants in the United States”
Why do some immigrants come without papers?
There are basically only three paths to become a “legal” immigrant to the U.S. – through work sponsorship, family sponsorship, or asylum. Each of these categories is incredibly hard to qualify for by an average person from a foreign country.
Only 140,000 reserved green cards are given out annually for immigrant workers – and, of those, only 5,000 are given to immigrants working in a job that does not require a college degree. The majority of undocumented immigrants work in so-called “low skill” jobs like construction, factory, restaurant, and childcare related work – occupations with strict limitations on work visas.
There are fewer than 500,000 visas made available for family sponsorship each year, which means that even if a would-be immigrant as an immediate relative in the U.S. willing to sponsor them, the waiting period to obtain a visa can take decades. For example, if you are an adult child of a U.S. citizen, live in Mexico, and are not married, you would have to wait over 20 years to be sponsored by your parents in the U.S.
The immediate relative who is the sponsor must also be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR), which bars would-be immigrants from this route if they do not already have a family member who lives in the U.S.
Obtaining asylum in the U.S. can be incredibly tricky – one must prove that they have a “credible fear” of circumstances in their home country; the majority of asylum applicants are rejected.
For decades, the U.S. has for also practiced what has been described as a “keep out” policy at the border and a “help wanted” policy inside. The U.S. economy runs on immigrant labor (see Section III, below). Certain politicians and demographics may say they do not want undocumented immigrants here. Yet, immigrants perform so many crucial functions in core industries that many businesses could not function without them. Many immigrants come here for economic opportunity, and America’s economy also greatly benefits.
Why can’t immigrants just “get legal”?
The short story is they can’t. Many Americans think that “getting legal” means simply going down to the closest federal building and filling out some forms. But our outdated immigration policies create enormous legal barriers and make obtaining legal status impossible for many undocumented immigrants.
Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for a green card within U.S. borders – but if they leave the U.S., return to their country, and apply at a U.S. consulate, they will be ineligible to return.
- If an immigrant has lived in the U.S. without authorization for more than 6 months, they are barred for 3 years
- If an immigrant has lived in the U.S. without authorization for more than a year, they are barred for 10 years
- The bans apply even if the immigrant is married to an LPR/U.S. citizen or has LPR/U.S. citizen children (see more here)
- Undocumented immigrants can ask the government to waive the bars, but waivers are only an option if immigrants meet certain specific conditions, which are hard to do
Keep in mind that enduring a bar does not mean an immigrant will be able to return after the bar is over – they are just no longer banned. A permanent ban from the U.S. is applied to anyone who:
- Is deported from the U.S. and then returned, or tried to enter, unlawfully; or
- Lived in the U.S. without papers for over a year, left on their own, and then returned or tried to enter unlawfully
After 10 years of living outside of the U.S., the aspiring immigrant seeking to adjust their legal status in the U.S. may submit their request to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
How do immigrants get deported?
Individual immigration cases are tricky because each one is unique and dependent on each person’s personal history, how they came to the U.S., how long they’ve been here, the circumstances in their country of origin – and whether or not they’ve been lucky in their encounters with immigration officials.
There are a number of ways an undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. could come to the attention of immigration authorities, including, but not limited to:
- They originally arrived seeking asylum (or applied for it afterward) and were denied, at which point they are required to leave.
- Immigration agents raided their place of work, home, or somewhere else immigrants are known to be, and they were caught up in the deportation enforcement dragnet.
- They were a collateral arrest, picked up when someone else nearby was arrested.
- They called the police themselves, for example, if they are an abused spouse, and the police also picked them up and turned them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
- They were stopped at a checkpoint or pulled over for a traffic infraction (such as speeding, having broken tail light, or no driver’s license), and police turned them over to ICE.
- They live within 100 miles of the border, which immigration agents regularly patrol.
Since the inception of the Trump Administration, immigration advocates and lawyers have noticed an increase in “silent raids.” During the Bush and Obama presidencies, a number of undocumented immigrants came across ICE’s radar for one of the reasons stated above, but these immigrants were not considered to be deportation priorities (usually because they had committed no crimes, and/or because they had U.S.-citizen children) and were not removed. In many cases, ICE authorized them to have work permits and Social Security numbers as long as they “checked in” with the agency once per year. Under the Trump Administration, however, ICE has been calling these immigrants in for appointments and deporting them. This is what America’s Voice now calls “silent raids.”
Why don’t we use the term “illegal immigrant”?
Referring to an individual as “illegal” is legally inaccurate. Federal immigration law generally declares unlawful unauthorized presence in the U.S. a civil violation – though entering the country illegally is classified as a federal misdemeanor. Some 40 percent of immigrants entered the U.S. legally through a visa obtained for work, study, or tourism and simply remained in the U.S. after their visa expired.
While the legal term “alien” is defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States,” opponents of immigration use the term “illegal alien” to dehumanize immigrants. This dehumanizing rhetoric is meant to:
- Strip people of their basic rights and dignity
- Underscore otherness
- Facilitate discriminatory actions
Associated Press (AP) Stylebook announced in April 2013 that writers should use the phrase “people who have immigrated illegally” and refrain from the terms: “illegal immigrant; an illegal alien; an illegal; illegals; or undocumented.” Since then, the majority of the media has retired those phrases.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) also urged the media to use “accurate terminology” in their coverage, in accordance with their decade-long campaign to stop the use of “pejorative” terms like “illegals” or “illegal aliens.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained that “to call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me . . . I think people paint those individuals as something less than worthy human beings and it changes the conversation.”
What’s a Dreamer?
A Dreamer (also written “DREAMer”) is a young person who qualifies for the DREAM Act.
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a piece of legislation first introduced to Congress in 2001 that grants a pathway to citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation. These are young people who are American in every way except on paper. They have grown up in this country and consider themselves to be American, but lack the documents to fully engage in society.
Unfortunately, the DREAM Act has never been passed into law, but immigrant youth who would qualify for it still refer to themselves as “Dreamers.” (See more about Dreamers here. Also, see “DACA”, below).
What is temporary protected status (TPS)?
Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, was established by Congress through the Immigration Act of 1990. TPS is intended to protect foreign nationals in the U.S. from being returned to their home country if it became unsafe during the time they were in the U.S. and would put them at risk of violence, disease, or death. For example, after the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti, TPS status was designated for Haitian nationals living in the U.S. at the time, to protect them from having to return to an unstable and unsafe country.
Currently, about 300,000 TPS holders from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras live in the United States. Many of them have lived here for decades, and many have U.S.-born citizen children. While previous presidential Administrations saw fit to continue renewing TPS status for recipients from these countries, the Trump Administration has terminated TPS for Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans. This means that unless Congress passes legislation to protect them, TPS holders from these countries will be forced to leave the U.S. by 2020.
Because TPS holders are allowed to legally work, the cost of deporting immigrants with TPS is expected to be enormous. More than 250,000 holders are currently employed. Their deportations are projected to cost employers $1 billion, and taxpayers $3 billion due to a decrease in tax contributions. There are 192,000 U.S.-born citizen children of Salvadoran TPS recipients alone.
II. WHAT IS IMMIGRATION REFORM (and why should we support it?)
Comprehensive immigration reform includes:
- A direct, fair, and inclusive path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. without papers
- Channels for future legal immigration that are flexible and functional
- Robust protections and guaranteed rights for all workers
- Enforcement that is targeted and fair, and respects immigrants’ rights
- Full and equal rights for all immigrants.
Immigration reform with a path to citizenship is popular – polls have consistently shown that a supermajority of Americans support legislation that would recognize immigrants who are already here. In March 2017, CNN found that 90 percent of Americans, including 87 percent of Republicans, back a path to citizenship. Seventy-one percent oppose the Trump Administration’s plan to mass deport all undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
However, we don’t need to wait for comprehensive immigration reform to improve the quality of life for undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.
How states can support immigrants
States that want to be supportive of their immigrant populations can:
- Grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses and identification cards
- Allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition to attend college
- Protect all residents from racial profiling, including immigrants
- Protect the rights of all workers, including immigrants
- Pass immigrant-friendly policies that protect the undocumented from federal immigration agents and detainers. See more here.
At the local level, cities and counties can:
- Help build strong relationships based on trust between the police and immigrant communities
- Fight to stop the deportations of immigrants who haven’t done anything wrong and have no criminal history.
How immigration reform helps the U.S. and underscores American values
America works best when we all do our part and work together as one nation, but our broken immigration policies are holding us back. Today, the lack of immigration reform costs us:
- $37 million daily in lost tax revenue for each day the immigration system remains unfixed
- $61.4 billion: overall lost revenue between mid-2013, when Congress could have passed comprehensive immigration reform, and the current date (January 2018)
- $10,000: cost per single deportation for taxpayers
- $2.6 trillion: cost of a self-deportation policy in GDP over 10 years
A pathway to citizenship would greatly benefit U.S. citizens and the government, in contrast. It would lead to:
- $568 billion: revenue increase in GDP over 10 years if immigrants have a pathway to citizenship
- 820,000: new jobs created for all U.S. workers over 10 years if immigrants have a pathway to citizenship
Morally, our outdated immigration policies are also a major stain on our national values:
- Nearly 23 percent of deported immigrants have U.S. citizen children
- 150,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent to deportation in just one year
Deportation and detainment tear apart US families:
- 85 percent of Latino undocumented immigrants have at least one family member who is a U.S. citizen
- 16.6 million people in the U.S. live with at least one undocumented American in the household
- 4.5 million U.S.-citizen children live with at least one undocumented parent
The threat of deportation and reality of forced separation leads to emotional and financial chaos for children and families. This includes:
- Children placed in foster care, or forced to live with family members other than their parents
- Single parents left struggling to make ends meet
- Increased food insecurity
- Higher poverty levels
- Constant fear of separation
- Mistrust of police
- Mental health issues: fear, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, inability to focus and acting out
III. HOT TOPICS IN THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE
What’s going on with the separation of children and families at the border?
Officially starting in May 2018, Donald Trump’s Administration created a humanitarian crisis at the border with a new policy that resulted in thousands of immigrant children being separated from their families. Their policy has separated over 2,700 children as of June 2018. The Trump Administration claims this horrific practice of family separation is a strategy to deter future undocumented immigration to the United States.
When these families are separated, the parents are sent to jail to face criminal prosecution for lacking documents, while the children are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to potentially be reunited with other family members. However, many of these families are seeking their legal right to claim asylum, and there is zero reason to separate them. As of this writing, neither Trump nor Congressional Republicans have fixed the crisis that Trump created; Trump’s June 20th executive order did nothing to resolve the problem.
To claim asylum an immigrant must (1) already be inside the United States and (2) clear the difficult hurdle of showing they have a credible fear of returning to the country they are fleeing. They must show they will not receive protection from the country they left due to past or future fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Many asylum seekers have sought refuge in the U.S. because of domestic violence or because their family members were killed by gangs and they feared being next; there have been multiple instances where asylum-seekers were murdered or raped after being deported or turned away from the United States.
In June 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed U.S. asylum policy to make those fleeing domestic violence or gang violence ineligible — a critical blow for many migrants seeking safety. The Trump Administration has also repeatedly turned away asylum seekers at the border, in a clear violation of international law.
While the Trump Administration flirted with the idea of child separation from its start, they made the practice official in 2018. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the practice a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ — an attempt to detain, criminally prosecute, and deport every immigrant attempting to cross the border without documents. This new policy to detain and criminally prosecute immigrants regardless of their circumstances resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents. Before the announcement, the Trump administration had been testing the practice of separating families in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where over 700 children had been taken from their parents.
The outcry and condemnation over the Trump Administration’s practice of separating children has been overwhelming:
- A broad range of religious leaders have condemned Trump’s policy.
- Nationwide protests have erupted in cities, along the border, at detention facilities, and at ICE offices.
- Several members of Congress risked arrest over Trump’s immigrant family separation policy.
- Many celebrities have also called for the end of the Trump Administration’s policy.
- Editorial boards across the country additionally joined in the denunciation of the practice of child separation.
In response to the wide ranging pressure and criticism, Trump signed a June executive order in a failed attempt to sidestep the issue. But, his order did nothing to resolve the crisis he created. His executive order did not end child separation because it did not end the 100% criminal prosecution policy. Instead, it set up indefinite immigrant family detention while those families await prosecution, a situation that raises questions of due process and other legal concerns. The executive order also did not create any process for reuniting the over 2,000 children already separated from their parents. Experts fear some of these children may never be reunited. Trump has since been ordered by the courts to stop the zero tolerance policy, but family separations continue to this day.
Importantly, there are proven and reasonable alternatives to indefinite family detention in jail-like conditions. The Obama Administration practiced these alternatives, and there was no reason why Trump couldn’t continue to do the same. One alternative would be to allow community supervision of immigrants by non-profit or government contractors. The Department of Homeland Security launched such a program in 2015, where families were monitored by social workers who helpedthem find housing, a lawyer, and made sure they attended their court hearings. Having a social worker resulted in a 99% rate of immigrants attending their court hearings, and it was dramatically less expensive than detention. In what should be a clear signal of his intent, Trump ended this effective, more humane, and cost effective program in 2017. After ending the program, his Administration falsely claimed child separation and indefinite family detention were the only solutions.
A GPS ankle monitor could be used as backup alternative for the cases where an immigrant would otherwise be detained awaiting their immigration hearing. These should be used only in specific circumstances as these ankle monitors have been criticized for carrying “a heavy societal stigma and immigrants who have been required to wear them report difficulties finding and maintaining employment and retraumatization for those previously victimized.” But, it is abundantly clear that real alternatives exist to the humanitarian crisis Trump created at the border.
As this crisis moves forward, the Trump Administration continues to keep families in detention and more than 2,000 children are still separated from their parents.
How opponents of immigration reform conflate immigrants with crime
Donald Trump might have been more blunt than the average anti-immigrant politician when he said that most undocumented immigrants are “bringing drugs . . . bring crime. They’re rapists.” But opponents of immigration throughout U.S. history have falsely accused groups they didn’t like of being dangerous and lacking in morals.
The truth is, multiple studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Among people aged 18-54, 1.53 percent of Native Americans are incarcerated, as are 0.85 percent of undocumented immigrants and 0.47 percent of documented immigrants.
Even when some undocumented immigrants are described as having criminal records, that statement can be misleading, and does not mean they have committed any serious crime. An immigrant may have a “record” because:
- They have traffic infractions due to speeding
- They were charged with using marijuana
- They were driving without a license (only 12 states and the District of Columbia allow immigrants to legally drive, and even these laws were passed relatively recently)
- They used false documents to procure jobs (the only way they can work while being undocumented)
- They crossed the border multiple times, or re-crossed the border after a deportation (as some immigrants do to reunite with their families after they’ve been deported)
Similarly, immigration agents will sometimes note that someone they’ve detained has a prior deportation order. This just means that a judge, at some point (maybe decades ago, when political attitudes were different), recognized that the person was there without status and ordered that person removed. A prior deportation order does not reflect whether or not that person is a deportation priority (see below). Many immigrants who are given deportation orders have no prior criminal history.
Finally, crossing the border is a misdemeanor, while being in the U.S. without status is a civil violation – not a crime. This means that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can be deported or removed, but their undocumented status does not make them criminals.
The border and the border wall
Donald Trump made a campaign pledge out of building a border wall – but the truth is that the communities around the border are actually some of the safest in America. That’s why members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – from around the border area all oppose building the wall. It would be a huge waste of money (Trump wants to spend billions of dollars on it) for an imagined problem, as border crossings are currently at a 17-year low.
There are major problems with building a border wall, as well: land on the border is not particularly well-suited for building, and much of it is private land that would have to be reclaimed through eminent domain. If the wall is built, millions of taxpayer dollars would be spent over many years taking land away from Americans for a project nobody wants. Polls have shown that more than six in ten voters don’t support building the wall.
That’s why Congress has consistently refused to give Trump the money he would need to build the wall. In late 2018, Trump shut down the government — an incident that would lead to the longest government shutdown in history — in order to pressure Congress to give him money for the border wall. When they still refused, Trump declared a national emergency so that he could take money away from military projects in order to fund his wall. Congress has voted multiple times to reject this national emergency, and Trump has twice vetoed these votes. As things currently stand, Trump has been granted authority to begin defunding military projects and building the wall, while court battles on the issue continue.
What are deportation priorities?
Since the government cannot (and should not) remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants, it would make the most sense for immigration officials to focus on removing immigrants who are actually dangerous or who have committed serious crimes. The rest of the immigrant population should be left alone in the interest of public safety. As several Chiefs of Police associations have said, immigrants need to trust law enforcement enough to cooperate with police and report serious crimes. Also, deportation priorities allow immigration officials to better focus their limited time and resources away from “low priority” immigrants with no criminal history to people with serious criminal convictions.
Think of the undocumented population as drivers on a highway. On a highway, almost everyone overspeeds a little bit, meaning that none of the drivers are in strict accordance with the law. But many people would think it was unfair for drivers to be pulled over for going just a little bit above the limit. Many people would think that the best use of a police officer’s time would be to go after people who are egregiously speeding, who actually present a danger to other drivers.
Immigration and the economy
Undocumented immigrants are a crucial piece of the U.S. economy and integral to the nation’s economic growth. Some 70 percent of all farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants, and immigrants also contribute heavily to the construction, restaurant, food preparation, hospitality, retail, health and elderly care, and manufacturing sectors.
Contrary to the claim from opponents of immigration like Donald Trump, immigrants do not take jobs away from Americans – they fill jobs that Americans don’t want to do, and immigrants don’t have long-term negative effects on the overall wages and employment of native-born workers. Meanwhile, immigrants do start businesses, create jobs, and make major contributions to the economy.
Reports have shown that mass deportation of immigrants would lead to:
- A 2.6 percent reduction of GDP, which would lead to a $4.7 trillion reduction over 10 years
- $900 billion in lost tax revenue
- A $103 billion annual GDP reduction in immigrant-rich states like California
The importance of undocumented immigrants to the economy, and the story of what happens when they’re gone, actually played out in Georgia and Alabama, which passed anti-immigrant state laws around 2011 which led local immigrants to leave for other states. The agricultural industry there collapsed without immigrant labor to work the fields, as crops were left to rot and farmers went out of business. Half a decade later, agriculture in Georgia and Alabama has still not recovered.
The same issue applies to farmers, dairy farms, and ranchers from California to Washington to New Mexico to Michigan to Florida. Dairy farms say that immigration enforcement under the Trump Administration could lead to $8 a gallon milk. And repeatedly, farmers have told stories about trying to find American workers to do the same jobs immigrants do – only to have the native-born Americans quit after mere hours in the field.
What is a “sanctuary city”?
There’s no single definition of what a sanctuary city is, but generally speaking, it’s a locality (city, county, or state) that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation.
When an undocumented immigrant is in jail, local police can either decide to let that person go after whatever they’ve been put into jail for is cleared up. This is what police in so-called “sanctuary cities” do. Or, they can hold that person until immigration agents come pick them up for detention and deportation. This is what the Trump Administration wants cities to do – even though multiple court rulings have found this practice to be unconstitutional. Also, cities risk incurring lawsuits for violating the Fourth Amendment rights of migrants who are in their custody.
Sanctuary cities are safer than cities that aren’t as friendly to immigrants. This is because cities with pro-immigrant policies see better relationships between immigrant communities and the police. Immigrants aren’t as afraid to report crimes, give tips, or testify as witnesses when they know that interactions with the police won’t lead to their deportation. In contrast, one disturbing trend we’ve noticed since the dawn of the Trump Administration involves immigrant women refusing to report rapists and domestic abusers out of fear of deportation.
ICE, CBP, and DHS
Here’s a short guide on the alphabet soup of federal agencies related to immigration and immigration enforcement:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): ICE handles the removal of undocumented immigrants from the interior of the U.S. When we reference federal immigration agents who come to jails to pick up immigrants, or agents who carry out immigration raids, or agents who come to homes or courthouses to arrest immigrants, we are usually talking about ICE.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP): CBP are the agents you’ll see at borders and airports when you’re leaving or coming back into the U.S. CBP also interacts with migrants (including asylum seekers) who come to the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP also has broad powers to operate anywhere in the U.S. that’s within 100 miles of any land or coastal border (that’s a lot of territory). Politico once called CBP “America’s most-out-of-control law enforcement agency,” while a former CBP official has called CBP more corrupt than any other law enforcement agency. You can read more about CBP’s history of offenses here and here.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): USCIS is the department which handles naturalization and citizenship; administers green cards, visas, and employment authorization; handles DACA; adjudicates asylum claims and temporary protected status, and more.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS): DHS is the department overseeing 22 different federal departments and agencies, including ICE, CBP, USCIS, TSA, FEMA, and more. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was the first DHS chief appointed under Donald Trump; the current chief is Kelly’s former deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen.
IV. HOW DONALD TRUMP IS CHANGING U.S. IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT
In a sentence, Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement policy consists of mass deportation. In a way that was not true of his predecessors, Trump is conducting mass, indiscriminate deportations of immigrants, including:
- Mothers and fathers of U.S.-citizen children
- Immigrants who have been here for decades and have no prior criminal history
- Dreamers who have voluntarily given their information to the government, who should be protected by DACA
- Business owners
- Immigrants who voluntarily kept their appointment for check-ins with ICE
- Immigrants who had been recognized by previous presidential administrations and allowed to stay (with, in some cases, work permits and driver’s licenses)
- Immigrants trying to adjust their status with USCIS (for example, because they’ve married a U.S. citizen)
Trump is also trying to restrict immigration in other ways, notably through his multiple attempted Muslim travel bans, unwillingness to admit refugees, reported turning away of asylum applicants at the border (which is illegal under international law), cancellation of temporary protected status (TPS) for multiple groups of immigrants, and more.
What’s Trump after? As commentators have noted, Trump and his advisers are acting on policies guided by ethno-centrism, i.e., a desire to reshape American demographics for the long term and preserve an ideal of the U.S. as a white-dominant country.
Trump claimed during his campaign that he would focus on deporting “bad hombres.” But since becoming president, he and his officials have made it clear that anyone who is undocumented in the U.S. is at risk of deportation, anytime. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” an ICE spokeswoman said recently.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said something similar: “Everyone in the country illegally is subject to being deported.”
It should be noted that Sessions is a famous opponent of immigration, both legal and undocumented. Sessions has longtime ties to anti-immigrant extremist groups, and is moving the U.S. Department of Justice toward having more influence over immigration and deportation, for example, by directing U.S. attorneys to be more aggressive on immigration enforcement.
Mass deportation comes at a huge cost, not only relative to how much the U.S. spends on deportations, but also in relation to the industries that are crippled when immigrant workers leave, families that are torn apart, children who are left to grow up in foster care, communities that are less safe because they feel like they can’t trust the police, decrease in reported crimes, exploitation of immigrants who cannot report bad landlords or abusive employers to the police, impact on businesses that depend on immigrant customers, and much more.
Read more about how Donald Trump has changed immigration enforcement here, here, and here.
V. IMMIGRATION UNDER THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
President Obama had two main programs meant to help undocumented immigrants during his Administration – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).
In 2012, President Obama announced he would stop deporting young immigrants who met the criteria outlined by the Dream Act and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA is not legal status, but provides:
- Protection from deportation for young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday and before June 2007
- Access to a renewable, two-year work permit
From these two simple benefits, Dreamers were able to make enormous strides. DACA status also allowed Dreamers to legally drive and travel within the U.S. The ability to legally work unleashed academic and career opportunities. As a result, 69 percent of Dreamers who obtained DACA secured a job with higher pay, 56 percent moved to a job with better working conditions, 65 percent purchased their first car, and 16 percent purchased their first home.
DACA did not create a path to legal permanent status or citizenship, however, and in September 2017, Donald Trump tried to rescind the program. Courts have blocked Trump’s move for now, but in November 2019, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether Trump is allowed to dismantle DACA or not. Ultimately, it may take an act of Congress to protect Dreamers from deportation. Learn more about the end of DACA and the fight for the Dream Act here.
Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) was a policy created by the Obama Administration which would have granted status to certain undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since 2010 and have children who are U.S. citizens or LPRs (also known as “green card” holders). DAPA is not legal status, but in this case would have come with a three-year, renewable work permit and some protection from deportation.
In August 2014, 52 percent of Americans supported President Obama taking unilateral actions concerning immigration in the continued absence of legislation. To qualify, immigrants would have to:
- Be parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents
- Live continuously in the U.S. since January 1, 2010
- Pass required background checks
On December 4, 2014, the Texas attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration on behalf of 26 states challenging DAPA (and the DACA expansion that accompanied it). On February 12, 2015, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen ordered a temporary injunction against the DAPA program and DACA expansion, a decision which the Supreme Court refused to reconsider in June 2016.
Presidents before Obama took major action on immigration, as well.
Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provided legal status and eventually citizenship for approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants, provided they had arrived in the U.S. prior to 1982. However, the spouses and children of those 3 million were not protected from deportation. In 1987, Reagan granted protection from deportation to children of parent(s) who qualified for legal status under the 1986 immigration law, essentially the same protection from deportation that is granted to undocumented immigrants through Obama’s DACA program.
In 1990, former President Bush established family fairness, by which family members residing with a legal immigrant and who were in the U.S. prior to the 1986 immigration law were protected from deportation and granted work authorization. The order extended the number of visas granted based on familial ties, in an effort to expand family reunification efforts.
VI. CONGRESS AND IMMIGRATION REFORM
What has Congress done to fix our broken immigration system?
In short, nothing.
Congress first considered The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001. The bill came very close to becoming law in 2010, when it was passed by the House in the lame-duck session of Congress and won a majority of votes in the Senate. Unfortunately, due to Senate rules, the bill needed 60 votes to advance and it fell by just five votes short. The Dream Act, and similar pieces of legislation, are currently being considered in the 2017-2018 session of Congress.
The Dream Act would provide conditional resident status (and eventual permanent resident status and citizenship) for young immigrants who:
- Entered the U.S. before 16 years old and lived continuously in the U.S. for at least 5 years
- Graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED
- Demonstrated good moral character
- Passed criminal background checks and interviews
BRIDGE and RAC
Two of the most commonly discussed (and more conservative) alternatives to the Dream Act, the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act and the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, would protect Dreamers from deportation without creating a path to citizenship.
The Bridge Act (S. 128/H.R. 496) is a bipartisan piece of legislation which would allow DACA recipients and those eligible for DACA to apply for “provisional protected presence” and work authorization for a renewable three-year period. The bill would also impose restrictions on the sharing of information in DACA and provisional protected presence applications with ICE and CBP for purposes of immigration enforcement. The Bridge Act does not offer a pathway to citizenship, but it does allow Dreamers the ability to work and participate in American society without fear of deportation.
The RAC Act would grant conditional legal permanent status to immigrants who arrived before the age of 16; have graduated high school or obtained a GED; and been accepted to college, vocational school, or the military. The conditional status would be cancelled if they became dependent on government services, are dishonorably discharged from the military, or are unemployed for more than a year. The conditional status would become permanent after five years if they graduate from college or vocational school, are honorably discharged from the military or has served for three years, or have been employed for at least 48 months.
2013 Immigration Reform
In 2013, the Senate passed S.744: the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act; a bipartisan bill aimed at fixing the immigration system. S.744 included provisions for:
- A path to citizenship for the vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
- Reunification for many families separated by deportation
- An expansion of family and employment-based immigration categories;
- Increased border security
- Additional green cards for foreign students with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees studying at U.S. institutions
In an incredible and rare show of bipartisanship, S.744 passed the Senate by a 68-32 vote, which included all Democrats and 16 Republicans. However, the bill was never taken up in the House of Representatives, despite a related bill, HR 15, having 200 co-sponsors. The necessary votes were there to pass bipartisan immigration reform, but then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it to the floor.
Notable members of Congress opposed to immigration reform
Congressman Steve King (R-IA) earned his infamous anti-immigrant reputation first through his comparison of immigrants to dogs and cattle. Since then, he said that immigrants are drug traffickers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from running across the border. Most recently, he said that we “can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies” and that “I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”
Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) pushed efforts to pass enforcement-only bills such as mandatory E-Verify. Further, he attempted to kill the diversity visa during his tenure as leader of the House Judiciary Committee. Finally, Smith served as the intellectual author of the 1996 anti-immigration law.
Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) theorized that terrorists send pregnant women to the U.S. to create American-hating U.S. citizens, “terror babies,” as he referred to them. He further contended that radical Islamists immigrate to the U.S. successfully by crossing the border with “Hispanic-sounding names.”
Congressman Mo Brooks (R-AL) would “do anything short of shooting” immigrants in order to resolve what he sees as the problem with immigration. He also argued that “anything that is lawful, it needs to be done,” (which, for him, did not include immigration reform with a path to citizenship). Finally, he publicly supported Alabama’s self-deportation law HB 56.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act in 2005 while serving as the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. This bill would have provided financing for an extended fence with advanced surveillance for the southern border. Further, Sensenbrenner supports E-Verify and condemns any form of immigration reform.
Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA) once stated that “the majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out.” Barletta further contended that immigrants were transforming America into a “sinking ship.” Barletta serves on the board of FAIR, one of the John Tanton anti-immigrant groups (explained below).
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) explained to a Dreamer who visited his office to plea for immigration reform that, simply put, he “hates illegals.”
Now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when he was in the Senate, was one of the Senate’s top opponents of immigrants and immigration reform. He has extremely close ties with the John Tanton network of anti-immigrant groups, including the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, and FAIR. Sessions received numerous awards from the groups, and he repeatedly quotes studies sponsored by the organizations. Sessions firmly supports self-deportation policies, including Alabama’s self-deportation law HB 56, and he voted against the DREAM Act in 2012. See more about Sessions here and here.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) invited four John Tanton network witnesses and Kris Kobach, head of Trump’s now-disbanded voter fraud investigation, to a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on the 2013 immigration bill to testify about the perils of immigration and why we should close our borders. Prior to President Obama’s DAPA announcement in November 2014, Grassley sent multiple letters to Obama declaring that any announcement would be an “abuse of authority”, even though he supported Bush’s executive actions on immigration in 2008.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) likes to say nice things about immigrants and immigration reform, but always votes against reform legislation and torpedoes attempts to pass a bill whenever he can. For this reason, America’s Voice has called Cornyn Congress’ biggest hypocrite on immigration and dubbed his antics the “Cornyn con.” In the 2017-2018 Congressional session, Cornyn responded to pressure to pass the Dream Act by introducing (with Sen. Grassley) a bill that paired weak protections for Dreamers with a mountain of “poison pill” anti-immigrant measures which guaranteed such a bill would never be passed.
John Tanton’s network: CIS, FAIR, NumbersUSA
To really understand opponents of immigration reform in America, you have to understand who John Tanton and his network are.
In the 1970s, a Michigan ophthalmologist named John Tanton became obsessed with eugenics, overpopulation, and the idea of America being taken over by people of color. He backed sterilization, wrote about how “a European-American majority” is required to maintain American culture, and worried about “less intelligent” people being allowed to have children.
Tanton started a whole array of anti-immigrant groups including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). For decades, these groups have worked with racists, anti-Semites, and white nationalists to promote dubious studies and misleading research that supposedly demonstrate why we need to have fewer immigrants in the U.S.. Their work is so outrageous that both FAIR and CIS have been listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For a long time, these groups were more or less marginalized. But Donald Trump loves these groups, the misleading information they provide him, and the people who are aligned with them. Trump has cited their data and put it into his ads, and CIS now attends meetings with officials in the Trump Administration. In fact, Trump hired a former legal policy analyst for CIS, John Feere, to serve as advisor to Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of ICE, and the former executive director of FAIR, Julie Kirchner, as an advisor to CBP’s acting commissioner. Jeff Sessions, the Tanton network’s favorite member of Congress, is now Trump’s Attorney General. His deputy, Stephen Miller, who has associated with the far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism, is now one of Trump’s senior advisers. Steve Bannon, formerly another one of Trump’s top advisers, is a white nationalist who used to run right-wing site Breitbart and frequently reports on CIS’ research and findings.
In short, Trump is guided by white nationalists who believe in a decades-old white nationalist agenda. And in his mass deportation of immigrants, he is trying to make this agenda a reality.
For more on the Tanton Network and the Trump Administration, see:
- Our latest on Tanton staffers who work inside the Trump Administration
- Trump, the Center for Immigration Studies, and the Tanton Network: The Implementation of a Decades-Old Agenda (America’s Voice)
- The Anti-Immigrant Crusader (New York Times)
- The Nativist Lobby: Three Faces of Intolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center)
- The Immigration Hardliner Family Tree (Mother Jones)
VII. HOW YOU CAN HELP / ASK A QUESTION
The best way to stand with immigrants under attack by the Trump Administration is to get involved locally.
There are hundreds of local immigrant rights organizations across the country and they need your support now more than ever. Use this resource to find an immigrant rights organization near you.
In addition to getting involved locally, America’s Voice sends out important digital actions letting immigration advocates know how they can make a difference. You can sign up for our actions and alerts at the bottom of the page here.
Here are some groups that help immigrants:
Still have a question not covered on this page? E-mail us at info [at] americasvoice.org.