The year in immigration: 'America's promise' gets scaled back


In February, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency charged with granting citizenship and other immigration benefits, removed a reference to securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement, while adding a line about “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

The change touched off a public outcry, which led USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna to issue a reassurance that the revised description of the agency’s objectives was in no way anti-immigrant.

“Each year, immigration benefits are attainable for many law-abiding individuals legitimately seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security as newly entrusted members of society, and to this end USCIS takes great pride and helping these dreams become a reality,” USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement to Yahoo News. “USCIS is committed to rule-of-law and merit-based immigration reforms that benefit U.S. workers, the American people, and our society to the greatest extent possible.” Nevertheless, USCIS’s new mission statement foreshadowed many of the changes the Trump administration made to U.S. immigration policy during the rest of the year.

Immigration and border policy made news in 2018, but for every new policy or executive action that dominated headlines — from the forcible separation and detention of more than 2,000 immigrant families, to the deployment of U.S. military troops along the Southwest border in anticipation of a caravan of migrants seeking asylum — there were other changes that flew under the radar.

Armed with a broad mandate to crack down on illegal immigration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) ramped up workplace raids, targeting undocumented workers as well as employers. ICE also worked to expand its controversial partnerships with local law enforcement agencies. Enhanced enforcement efforts and subtle but important policy changes have increased the number of immigrants in detention facilities. In particular, the population of detained unaccompanied immigrant children ballooned to record levels, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to move funds from other programs such as cancer research to keep up with the expense.

Although President Trump has emphasized that his priority is cutting illegal immigration and expelling criminals and gang members, many of the policies implemented or proposed by his administration in 2018 appear to be aimed at reducing legal immigration. According to data released by USCIS for the first nine months of fiscal year 2018, denials of immigration benefits, including work permits, green cards and travel visas, increased 37 percent since fiscal year 2016.

Such denials are projected to become even more common as the State Department continues to lower the annual refugee cap and the Department of Homeland Security pushes additional restrictive regulations, including one that aims to prevent legal immigrants from obtaining green cards or citizenship if they use, or may be likely to use, a host of public services.

Before his ouster in November, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions also made a number of small but significant changes to the heavily backlogged immigration court system, which is part of the Department of Justice. These changes included the imposition of case completion quotas for judges and a unilateral decision removing domestic abuse and fear of gang violence as grounds to seek asylum in the United States. (A federal judge stayed that order in mid-December.)

In the absence of legislation, the Trump administration from the beginning, and during 2018, has attempted to implement its immigration agenda through executive orders, presidential proclamations and regulatory changes. But they have frequently been stymied by legal challenges. More than a year after Trump technically terminated the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the program’s future remains in legal limbo. In June, the Supreme Court upheld the third version of Trump’s executive order banning citizens from a list of majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the United States.

Last month, as thousands of migrants fleeing violence in Central America made their way through Mexico toward the United States, the administration attempted to use the same national security justification cited in the travel ban decision to change the rules for migrants seeking asylum, requiring them to apply at one of the official ports of entry on the Southwest border. (Under past practice, and consistent with U.S. and international law, anyone physically present in the country, even if they entered illegally, could request asylum — a postwar policy meant to minimize the obstacles for refugees fleeing oppression.)

Having immediately sparked a federal lawsuit, the asylum ban is now blocked by a temporary restraining pending further court proceedings. In the meantime, U.S. border officials at various ports entry along the border have taken measures to limit the number of people who can legally request asylum each day, forcing them to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns or risk crossing the border illegally.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters.