The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump put up walls to immigrants, with stinging rhetoric and barriers made of steel and regulation

President Trump waves at a rally in El Paso in February 2019. (Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg News)
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President Trump has at times spoken favorably of immigrants during the past four years, echoing conventional Republican praises for those who arrive in the United States legally. But in his less scripted moments, like at a rally in Minnesota in late September, Trump’s words fully align with the policies he has put in place, and something electric happens between the president and his supporters.

The event took place as the Trump administration prepared to cut the number of refugees eligible for admission into the country to 15,000, the lowest level since 1980. The president told the audience that his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, would reverse that and “turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.”

President Trump on Sept. 30 criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee, for telling “us how to run our country.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The crowd hissed and booed. The president stood basking in the sound, a throng of Americans jeering at immigrants who seek shelter in the United States legally, fleeing religious persecution, torture, genocide.

The 45th President: Looking back at Donald Trump’s presidency

U.S. presidents have not always spoken this way about people hoping to reach safety, and their dreams, in America. But Trump’s first term has shattered the decades-long bipartisan view of immigrants as a pillar of the nation’s identity. During the past four years, his administration has issued scores of proclamations, regulatory changes, legal decisions and executive orders seeking to reshape immigration policy. A July report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, put the number at more than 400.

The measures have been large and small, sweeping and narrow, legal and physical.

Trump has ordered border agents to separate migrant children from their parents, has cut work visas for foreign software engineers and has erected giant steel barricades across hundreds of miles of borderlands. The changes have been dizzying in their scope and frequency, but they follow a singular logic: to make the United States a more closed, restrictive nation. To wall it all off.

“He’s done what he said he’d do,” Ken Cuccinelli, the second-ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview defending Trump’s record as a wide-ranging, comprehensive effort to “make sure Americans come first.”

“I can’t think of another policy area where he’s encountered more hurdles, and he’s pressed ahead successfully,” Cuccinelli said.

The number of U.S. immigrant visas issued overseas fell 25 percent from 2016 to 2019, State Department data shows. The overall growth of the country’s immigrant population slowed to about 200,000 per year during Trump’s first two years, down from 650,000 per year under President Barack Obama, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau survey data by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that saw its restrictionist proposals going from the fringes of the Republican Party into the halls of the West Wing.

The net results of Trump’s efforts have in other ways fallen short of his rhetoric. Trump took office promising millions of rapid deportations, but his first-term deportation numbers are below that of Obama’s. Trump repeatedly threatened to “close” the Mexico border, but he presided over the biggest migration crisis in a generation, as a record surge of families overwhelmed U.S. agents and led to nearly 1 million arrests in 2019.

Trump’s chaotic management style fostered instability and frequent turnover at the Department of Homeland Security. His shift from a focus on counterterrorism to immigration enforcement alienated career officials and damaged the bipartisan support the department has counted on since its creation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In Washington, Mich., on Nov. 1, President Trump laughed at the idea of refugees facing Michigan's cold. The refugee cap is at its lowest number ever. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Nov. 3 election presents voters with two sharply divergent policy agendas: Biden has said he will repudiate and reverse Trump’s immigration measures, and the president’s reelection almost certainly would lead to an expansion of his first-term agenda.

“Trump has laid the foundations for a permanent shift in the immigration system of the United States,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “But that so many of these measures have come through administrative rulemaking and processes means they are subject to be reversed if Trump doesn’t continue in office.”

Trump’s vision for a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico remains unrealized. But he has completed nearly 400 miles of steel barriers through remote deserts and mountains — U.S. taxpayers have footed the entire bill, not Mexico, as he promised — using funds primarily diverted from the U.S. military budget.

The $15 billion Trump wall, one of the costliest federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history, has been installed primarily on remote public lands in the Southwest, not the Rio Grande segments in Texas that were the top priority for U.S. border officials. And despite the huge investment, border arrests rose last month to their highest level for any September since 2006.

The president’s supporters say he has changed the immigration debate in the United States. His critics do not disagree, saying he welcomed racism and xenophobia into the open and stigmatized outsiders to create a new, angry American identity.

No figure has been more responsible for steering Trump along that path than senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a singular, implacable force on the issue.

Miller, one of the president’s longest-serving and most trusted aides, developed a reputation for reaching deep into federal agencies to have regulations changed, crafting executive orders that others in the building barely understood before the president signed them. Sometimes people would ask Miller to go through regular protocol, but “there was nothing you could really do because he had the president’s support,” said a former senior official who worked closely with him.

In an interview, Miller said confidently that Trump has done more on immigration in four years “than any president in history.”

“The president has delivered for the working people of this country whose voices have been neglected for decades,” he said. “The policies, procedures and programs he put in place will endure for a long time to come.”

While some former Trump officials have expressed contrition for the administration’s treatment of immigrants, Miller said he has no regret for Trump’s first-term moves, blaming a backlash against his immigration agenda on unfair media coverage. He accepted no responsibility for a coarsening public debate in which foreign-language speakers are berated in public and violent white supremacist groups have thrived.

In recent weeks, Miller has campaigned for the president by evoking the imagery of a foreign “invasion” that has been a stock feature of right-wing nationalism.

“If the left gains power, and revokes the border controls now in effect, it will unleash a global tsunami of illegal immigration unlike anything the world has ever seen before,” Miller said.

The Trump administration has cited the public health threat from the novel coronavirus to implement the kind of severe border and immigration restrictions the president, and Miller, have long extolled. With U.S. consulates closed abroad, the number of immigrant visas has plunged 90 percent since March. U.S. agents at the border have emergency authorities to summarily “expel” most migrants back to Mexico. The country is essentially closed to asylum seekers and refugees.

John Kelly, the former chief of staff and DHS secretary when some of Trump’s harshest policies were hatched, said there was a significant missed opportunity in the presidency to have a more sensible — and broader — conversation about immigration.

“We need to have a discussion about immigration in terms of who should come here and how many immigrants should come here,” Kelly said in an interview. “We’ve lost out on having that discussion, unfortunately, because of the hard-liners.”

Trump has not significantly reduced the number of immigrants living in the United States overall. The share of the U.S. population that is foreign-born — about 14 percent — remains at its highest level since 1910. Though the president repeatedly urged an overhaul of the legal immigration system to favor skilled immigrants over family ties, the White House failed to secure passage of such legislation before Republicans lost control of the House in 2018.

What changed in the United States, for many of the roughly 45 million U.S. residents who are foreign-born, is the way the country talks about immigrants and how it treats them. The president gave “a green light to hate,” said Selena Besirevic, who arrived in 1995 at age 13 as a Bosnian refugee.

“This administration didn’t create hatred in people’s hearts, it just empowered it,” said Besirevic, now an attorney in Denver. “I think the racism and discrimination have always been there in some people, but they knew it wasn’t acceptable. Now they’re thinking: If my president is saying it, so can I. And if the government is treating immigrants horribly, I can, too.”

Cascading changes

Trump’s immigration policies began with a fusillade in his first days in office, launching orders to expand immigration enforcement, tighten border security and impose a travel ban that predominantly affected citizens of several Muslim-majority nations. Thousands of people protested as refugees and travelers were stranded overseas.

“From the very first moment,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, an advocacy network of migrant-led groups, “our nightmare began.”

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump promised to deport millions of “bad hombres,” and soon after his election, detention centers filled with more than 50,000 immigrants a day, a historic high. Trump’s top immigration enforcement official warned that the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States “should be afraid.”

“The language is one of the worst aspects,” said Chacón, a naturalized citizen who fled the war in El Salvador, noting that the administration has used “fearmongering” to build public support for its policies. “They have used language to further dehumanize, criminalize, so that the public can say it’s okay.”

The Trump presidency’s focus on the border — both with policy and with his wall — made more evident than ever that migration trends respond to perceived changes in enforcement and even presidential rhetoric.

Border crossings fell immediately after Trump took office, reaching their lowest level in decades but then began to tick upward as smuggling organizations realized nothing changed.

The Trump administration responded to the surge in the number of parents bringing children to the U.S. border by announcing a “zero tolerance” policy — with the immediate effect of separating parents from their children upon entry. Trump caved after six weeks amid a massive public outcry, but his directive to keep families together was soon twisted by smuggling guides in Central America as a sales pitch that offered discounts to migrants who brought children, claiming they were the ticket to avoiding U.S. detention and deportation.

Trump used multiple measures to break the migration surge, pressuring the Mexican government to deploy troops and allow the United States to send Central Americans back over the border into Mexico to await U.S. court dates there. Squalid camps of asylum seekers sprouted on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Kevin McAleenan, who ran U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2017 to 2019 and then served as acting Homeland Security secretary during the migration crisis, said the episode showed a need for a much deeper commitment to Central America.

“The last several years have demonstrated that it’s not just development aid or security support,” McAleenan said. “While those efforts are fundamental, we must engage Central American governments directly on regional migration flows, and work with them to address the human smuggling organizations, while extending protections for vulnerable populations closer to home.”

Biden, if elected, may not be able to easily deliver on his pledges to roll back Trump’s immigration legacy. Miller and his team created interlocking layers of measures to restrict access to the U.S. asylum system, for instance, so an unfavorable court ruling or injunction blocking one measure would leave others intact. He flooded the immigration system with so many regulatory changes and executive actions that advocacy groups struggled to keep pace in court.

Some of the immigration restrictionists who back Trump have urged him to run more aggressively on his record, dismayed that the issue has been less central to his reelection than during the 2016 campaign.

The president’s surrogates have championed it for him. Chad Wolf, Trump’s fifth and favorite Homeland Security chief, convened reporters in Texas on Thursday to extol the president’s record and autograph a border wall plaque engraved with Trump’s name to mark the completion of 400 new miles. And Miller had a call with reporters this past week to depict Biden’s immigration proposals as an existential threat that would trigger “a rush on the border on a global scale” and bankrupt the United States with a flood of newcomers.

White House aides and advisers long ago ceded control of the issue to Miller, giving him unrivaled influence over Trump’s agenda. Miller was the person who could best channel the president’s gut-level impulses, and fighting with him on the issue would ultimately hurt one’s political capital in the White House, two former officials said.

The president has regularly bragged about his support among Latinos, telling other advisers that he is doing better than he was in 2016 because they like his tough policies, a senior administration official said. He has asked for regular updates on the wall — hoping to brag about progress during the campaign, officials said — but has been less obsessed with other aspects of immigration policy.

Miller would regularly tell the president that various officials in U.S. agencies were trying to block his agenda, according to one former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debate on the issue.

Several of the administration’s biggest crises, from the Muslim travel ban to the family separations at the border, were put together hastily with Miller’s involvement. Trump was supportive of both ideas before they happened, the senior administration official said, but became wobbly after implementation was poor and media coverage negative.

Trump would regularly discuss how the United States should try to get more immigrants from Europe — where his ancestors lived — and would recount violent acts he attributed to Mexican immigrants, one official said.

“POTUS was obsessed with the wall,” the official said. “You’d talk to Miller, and he barely talked about the wall. He was more looking to change the laws and where he could make real change.”

Those changes, measured in sheer numbers, have occurred in areas where Miller could have the most immediate impact. There has been a drop in the number of student visas issued under Trump, and most profoundly, in refugee admissions, at a time when demand is high. Nearly 26 million refugees are awaiting placement worldwide, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and about half are children and teens. Obama set the refugee cap at 110,000 during his last year in office; Trump has slashed the ceiling to 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year. The drop in admissions from Muslim-majority countries has been more than 95 percent.

“It breaks my heart, completely breaks my heart. There’s a 13-year-old girl out there somewhere going through horrible trauma, genocide or persecution,” Besirevic said. “I think America has always been a welcoming country and needs to go back to be a welcoming country.”

Bandak Lul, 29, a refugee from South Sudan, said he “feels less welcome” today, aware of his status “as a refugee and a Black man in America.” The turning point for him, he said, was Trump referring to countries as “shitholes” without appearing to pay a price.

“This was a point where America fell into anti-refugeeness,” said Lul, who lives in Phoenix, where he works as a researcher at Arizona State University. “He’s been able to do whatever he wants ever since, and there hasn’t been anyone to speak up against him.”

Trump’s changes have pushed the boundaries of existing immigration laws to extremes the nation had never seen, advocates said.

He separated approximately 5,400 children from their parents at the southern border, and lawyers still do not know whether all of them have been reunited, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. Even though courts did not allow Trump to stop people from seeking asylum, he has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to impose that policy anyway. His emergency measures have blocked thousands from entering the United States, waving off legal protections for vulnerable groups, including minors traveling without their parents.

Gelernt said lawyers on both sides have been run ragged in this administration. “There’s been enormous support for people fighting back, but ultimately the problem is that the federal government is so big and has so many resources that we’re ultimately always going to be mismatched,” he said. “We’re always going to be outgunned.” 

Trump’s approach also has transformed the immigration issue in the GOP. In the past, figures like the late senator John McCain, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were openly supportive of legal immigration, reflecting the views of the corporate and business wing of the party. Trump defied that consensus.

Reaction to Trump’s immigration measures has pushed the Democratic Party further to the left on matters of immigration enforcement, during a term marked by social media eruptions over policies that drew far less attention under previous administrations.

The phrase “kids in cages” became a kind of catchall rebuke to the Trump approach, even though the chain-link enclosures they refer to were built under the Obama administration. At the time, during a 2014 border crisis, the air-conditioned warehouse with chain-link holding pens was considered a safer, more humane alternative to the sweltering garages border agents used to house detainees during previous migration spikes.

Immigration lawyers and nonprofit organizations have ramped up their efforts to block Trump’s policies, descending on airports in small armies, volunteering in remote locations to aid immigrants and challenging government policies in court. They volunteered to aid immigrants at remote border jails, monitored social media to counter Trump’s tweets, and speedily wrote legal briefs by staying up all night.

“We have literally been working around-the-clock, seven days a week, for the past four years,” said Gelernt. The ACLU has filed more than 100 immigration-related lawsuits over that time. “We’re fighting in the courts to stop policies, but we’re also fighting to regain some narrative in the public’s mind about who immigrants are and why they come to this country.”

A new term's impact

Some polls suggest Trump’s approach has backfired. A July Gallup poll found that for the first time, Americans said they wanted more immigrants to come into the country rather than fewer. In all, 34 percent of Americans said they would like to see immigration to the United States increase, up from 27 percent the year prior and the highest level since 1965. The share that preferred decreasing immigration fell to 28 percent, a new low.

Immigrants account for 1 in 10 eligible voters, a record high, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 23 million immigrants are eligible to vote, nearly double the number a decade ago.

A Biden win would leave nearly every immigration measure vulnerable to reversal, however, even though some of the moves would take time and certainly would trigger litigation.

“[Trump] has fundamentally altered our immigration system without a single act of Congress,” said Ur Jaddou, who was chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Obama. “They have flouted the traditional policy processes that allows for input from the public, and allows for input by career professionals. All of that has been cast aside, and that is how they were able to accomplish so much change so quickly.”

“Ultimately the question is: How do you undo damage that was done to decades of support for rational immigration policies, our refugee and naturalization systems? It’s a lot of things they have done that will take time to undo,” Jaddou said.

The November election also could determine the fate of the roughly 640,000 “Dreamers” who were spared deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Supreme Court ruled this year that Trump’s effort to terminate DACA was unlawful, but the court did not rule on the legality of the program itself, and the administration is preparing another try.

About 400,000 immigrants who have lived in the United States with a form of provisional residency known as temporary protected status (TPS) also face a threat of deportation if Trump is reelected.

Jacqueline Batres-Bonilla, 31, a graduate student and cancer survivor in Minnesota, could lose her home if the courts allow Trump to terminate TPS, which grants approximately 250,000 Salvadorans permission to live and work in the United States. She arrived in the United States at age 11.

Because TPS expires every 18 months or so, Batres-Bonilla said, her foothold in the United States has always been tenuous. But past administrations always renewed the permits, as long as immigrants paid their fees and passed background checks.

Under Trump, nobody came to their rescue. Now she and her husband — Marvin, 34, also a TPS recipient from El Salvador — could lose their home, work permits, driver’s licenses and careers. She is halfway through a master’s program in marriage and family therapy at Bethel University. He owns a business that installs carpeting and flooring and has nine employees. Her younger brother and sister are U.S. citizens studying for their bachelor’s degrees.

“They’re asking you to pack up 20 years of life, 20 years of what you have built, and just be gone?” she said. “Who does that?”

Batres-Bonilla, a Christian, said she finds comfort in prayer. But she said the stress can be overwhelming; she grinds her teeth and struggles to sleep.

“I can feel the anxiety in my body,” she said.

She and her husband bought a home last year in Burnsville, a city of 61,000 on Crystal Lake outside of St. Paul, and have continued to share their personal story with lawmakers on Zoom in hopes of being able to apply for U.S. citizenship one day. Months after her family arrived in Minnesota, doctors diagnosed her with uterine cancer. She survived after chemotherapy and surgery but is unable to bear children. She and her husband hoped to foster children and then adopt their own.

“I’ve lived here more than I lived in my own country,” she said. “It was never temporary for us. It was just the life we wanted to live.”

Much of Trump’s second-term immigration agenda is already known. He would build hundreds of additional miles of border barriers, further tighten work visas, try to punish sanctuary jurisdictions, give states and localities the ability to shut their doors to refugees and sew up the asylum system even tighter, administration officials say. And high on his list would be a push to change the principle that grants U.S. citizenship to anyone born on American soil.

The ACLU’s Gelernt said he expects more of the same if Trump is reelected.

“That’s the question on everyone’s mind: ‘What happens if there’s another four years?’ ” he said. “Can we keep up this same pace?