President Trump and congressional Democrats are fighting over how much the U.S. government should spend on Trump’s proposed border wall, risking another government shutdown because of a dispute over immigration policy. However those negotiations turn out, though, here’s the thing: The massive wall, which Trump has said would stretch 1,000 miles across the U.S.-Mexico border, is very unlikely to be built, at least at that size. Mexico is not paying for it, and Congress is unlikely to put up much money for it.
You could call the wall’s meager prospects a major defeat for Trump, but that risks missing the point. The wall is something of an abstraction. Trump, in his two years in office, has already made U.S. policy much, much more resistant to immigration — without Congress agreeing to his wall or really any of his immigration ideas. There is no physical wall, but there are all kinds of new barriers for people who want to come to the United States and for undocumented immigrants who want to stay.
Here’s what we can measure, over the past two years:
- Many fewer refugees are allowed into the country. The U.S. resettled about 97,000 refugees in 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year in office. (Obama made resettling more refugees a priority for his administration.) But that number plunged to 33,000 in 2017, after Trump enacted a temporary ban on refugees in his first week in office. It is likely to drop even further in 2018. Refugee resettlement declined around the world in 2017, but the drop was disproportionately big in the U.S. and partly attributable, according to experts, to Trump administration policies.
- The U.S. now takes in very few Muslim refugees. The U.S. allowed in about 39,000 Muslim refugees in the period from October 2015 through September 2016, when Obama was president. (This data is compiled by federal fiscal year.) From October 2017 through September 2018 — the first full fiscal year under Trump — about 3,500 Muslim refugees were admitted. In the last full fiscal year under Obama, slightly more Muslims were admitted than Christians. Now, Christian refugees are much more likely than Muslims to be allowed to resettle in the U.S.
- Immigration law enforcement is much more aggressive within the U.S. Much of the national immigration discussion is focused on the U.S.-Mexico border. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws away from the border, is where some of the biggest changes are happening. In the fiscal year that covered much of Trump’s first year in office, ICE made about 143,000 arrests, compared with 110,000 during the last complete fiscal year of Obama’s presidency.
- People from countries included in Trump’s travel ban basically can’t come here. Comparing fiscal year 2016 with January through May of 2018, the U.S. has issued far fewer visas in an average month to people from Iran, Syria and Yemen — at least an 80 percent drop for each country. There has been an even larger drop in the number of visas granted to people from Iran and Yemen who want to move to the U.S. permanently.
- The number of migrant children in detention has exploded (most came to the U.S. without their parents, but some have been separated from them). Under Obama, when migrant children crossed the border illegally, they often ended up living with relatives or family friends, and immigration analysts say that the Trump administration has made the process of getting children into the homes of family members or friends more complicated. They say some families are less willing to come forward and be sponsors because they’re worried about interacting with government officials and potentially being accused of some immigration-related crime. In May 2017, in the early stages of the Trump administration, 2,400 children were in federal shelters for migrant children. In September, that number was above 12,000.
Those are just the areas of immigration policy with the clearest data. I have no doubt that the Trump administration’s immigration changes are having other effects that we can’t measure as well. Here are some of the potential shifts that are harder to track:
- How many thousands of people might have applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (which allows young immigrants who were brought here illegally as children to remain in the U.S and be guaranteed not to be deported) if the Trump administration had not announced the end of the program and tried to wind it down? (So far, federal courts have blocked this move, arguing that the administration has not followed proper regulatory procedures.)
- How many people have not applied for asylum to the U.S., as the administration has taken steps to make it harder to do so?
- How many people who live abroad but wanted to come to the U.S. for jobs have not done so, as the administration has complicated the process to apply for some work permits and visas?
- How many people have not tried to immigrate to the U.S. because of the Trump policy (which was ended) that resulted in children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border or because of the use of tear gas on some migrants? (Tear gas was used at times by the Obama administration, but Obama did not strongly defend the practice in public, as Trump has. There were some family separations by the Obama administration, but it did not publicly embrace that practice either.)
Much of the political debate has focused on why Trump is taking all these steps: Is it because immigration is an economic or security threat to the U.S., as the president has said? Or is it because he opposes the country becoming less white and less Christian? I think the evidence points pretty strongly toward the second explanation, the white identity politics one.
But while understanding his reasoning is important, there’s little dispute about the effects of Trump’s policies. Wall or no, a lot has already happened, and more big changes could be on the way. The wall is a story. But the story is how Trump has already remade U.S. immigration policy.
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