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Trump is fulfilling his pledge to build fortress America — and running on it

President Trump visits a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Otay Mesa, Calif., in September. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
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As he rallies support for his reelection in November, President Trump is closer than ever to delivering on his promise for a United States with taller walls, tighter immigration laws and fewer foreigners entering the country.

During the past three years, the president has hardened the nation’s immigration system into an obstacle course of physical and bureaucratic barriers, causing illegal border crossings to plummet and legal immigration to slump.

The number of refugee admissions to the United States fell to the lowest level on record last year, and this year the administration set the refu­gee cap even lower, reserving just 18,000 spots for people who are fleeing persecution across the globe. The Trump administration also is blocking asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border and flying them instead to Guatemala or sending them back into Mexico.

Trump ramps up border-wall construction ahead of 2020 vote

Other visitors are being turned back or staying away entirely: foreign students and tourists are coming in fewer numbers, according to the latest State Department data, and green cards issued abroad since 2016 have dropped 25 percent.

“It’s no secret that the administration is consciously trying to close America to immigrants,” Lucas Guttentag, an immigration law professor at Stanford Law School, said in an email. “Trump policies and practices have attacked virtually every facet of the immigration system: effectively dismantling asylum protections at our southern border, imposing wealth restrictions on immigrants who are spouses and family members of citizens, burdening businesses that legitimately depend on skilled immigrant workers and threatening mass deportations regardless of how long or deep a person’s ties to country and community are.”

As the president continues to fulfill his promise to build hundreds of miles of steel border barriers, critics say he is retreating from former president Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a welcoming “city upon a hill” whose doors should be “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

In the president’s view, the city on the hill was too permissive and vulnerable; welcoming foreigners opens the doors to an existential threat. Trump promised his supporters to wall it off, and he has stuck to that vision. His “Make America Great Again” message conjured a time before the rapid economic and demographic changes of globalization. He is leaning heavily on that message again to win in November, depicting Democrats as radical extremists who want “open borders” and those who encourage sanctuary for immigrants as enabling violence and murder.

“Border control is necessary to save our citizens’ schools, hospitals, jobs and very lives — and to keep criminals out of our communities,” said White House deputy spokesman Hogan Gidley. “President Trump’s policies are restoring the rule of law, saving lives and raising wages for African American and Hispanic American workers who have been completely forgotten and betrayed by the Democratic Party.”

On Monday, Trump’s White House released a 2021 budget proposal that would increase deportations by adding thousands of new immigration agents and expanding jail capacity. Hours later, Attorney General William P. Barr announced Justice Department lawsuits against three “sanctuary” jurisdictions that eschew cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. And at an evening rally in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s Democratic primary, the president dusted off one of his vintage campaign routines, reciting a dark allegory he calls “The Snake” about a serpent that turns on its generous host, injecting fatal venom. “This is about immigration,” he told the crowd, to raucous cheers.

“Gotta come in legally and through merit!” the president shouted. “Under my administration, we’re fully taking care of our own citizens first.”

During his State of the Union address last week, Trump spoke of immigrants almost exclusively in negative terms, railing against “sanctuary jurisdictions” and highlighting the lurid killing of a 92-year-old woman in New York last month.

While his predecessors in the Republican Party often balanced calls for tighter border controls with a reaffirmation of the country’s immigrant identity, Trump has largely dispensed with those phrases to depict newcomers as criminals, competitors and a welfare burden.

Guided by immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller, one of the president’s longest-serving and most-trusted aides, Trump and his administration have announced a flurry of new restrictions in recent months. Lawsuits from immigration advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union have slowed the implementation of some of those policies, but appellate courts have been allowing Trump’s restrictions to go forward.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled 5-to-4 to allow the administration to implement its “public charge rule” — a policy central to Trump’s agenda that allows the government to deny green cards to more low-income applicants.

Linda Rivas is an immigration attorney whose work regularly takes her to the dangerous Mexican border city of Juarez, where thousands of migrants are stranded. (Video: The Washington Post)

That decision and other court victories have given the administration new momentum after the Central American migration crisis and failed family separation plan that largely derailed Trump’s immigration agenda in 2018 and early 2019, when more than 1 million migrants streamed across the southern border.

That crisis is now relatively under control, squelched by enforcement measures that curb the ability of asylum seekers to apply for protection in the United States. The number of arrests and detentions along the U.S. southern border has plunged 75 percent since May.

Cris Ramón, an immigration analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said the administration reached a turning point last summer when it debuted measures like the “Migrant Protection Protocols” that sent asylum seekers back across the border instead of allowing them to wait in the United States for their court dates.

By pressuring Mexico and Central America to assist with immigration enforcement, the administration was able to wield restrictive new tools Congress would not approve. Trump administration officials could then turn back to their immigration priorities in the U.S. interior.

“I think what happened in 2019 was the administration was able to pivot back to legal immigration, especially once MPP began having impact on the arrival of Central American migrants,” Ramón said. “They were slowly trying to push through reforms, and now that the crisis has diminished, they are moving forward.”

There have been signs in recent weeks that the administration is forcing fewer returns to Mexico, a process that still affords asylum seekers a hearing with a U.S. immigration judge. Instead, authorities are putting migrants on planes to Guatemala, part of the “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” the Trump administration has reached with Central American governments. The move lightens the load on U.S. courts — migrants’ asylum claims are instead deferred to other countries for processing — and eliminates an avenue migrants previously had for gaining entry.

Homeland Security officials and defenders of Trump’s immigration policies say Democrats and immigrant advocates have overreacted to the president’s policies, pointing out that the number of people taking the naturalization oath reached 833,000 in 2019, an 11-year high. The United States remains the most welcoming and generous nation in the world, they say, and no other country takes in so many immigrants and affords newcomers the same rights as its native-born citizens.

The number of immigrants already present in the United States who were issued green cards as legal permanent residents rose to nearly 577,000 last year, roughly the same as the previous year and a higher total than the last years of the Obama administration.

Trump ramps up border-wall construction ahead of 2020 vote

Immigration experts and advocates say it is not unusual to see increases in applications for permanent residency and naturalization at times of heightened anxiety about immigration status. Critics also note that wait times have soared during the past three years, and the administration is preparing to dramatically hike its fees.

Homeland Security officials have proposed raising fees for naturalization from $640 to $1,170, an 83 percent increase. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the legal immigration system, is a fee-funded agency, and officials say the increase is needed to cover rising administrative costs.

Dan Tichenor, a political scientist at the University of Oregon who specializes in the history of U.S. immigration policy, said the country has not seen anything like Trump’s immigration approach since the 1920 and the Great Depression.

“We’ve had crackdowns in the past, but what’s striking is just how broadly the Trump administration has pursued restrictions, from green cards to travel restrictions to family separation and ending DACA,” Tichenor said. The difference now is that the United States is in the middle of an economic boom, not a crash.

Trump’s first “travel ban” in early 2017 targeted mostly Muslim-majority countries, and its sudden implementation unleashed travel chaos at U.S. airports and lawsuits. The policy was blocked in federal courts, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the restrictions to take effect while legal challenges are pending.

Homeland Security officials say the latest nations to face restrictions are not subject to a “ban” and that only about 13,000 would-be travelers per year will be affected. The decision to announce the measures came after months of efforts to get the nations to adhere to information-sharing requirements that the administration believes are crucial to national security, officials said.

“For a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere to these criteria, certain travel restrictions have become necessary to mitigate potential threats,” Chad Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary, said in a statement. “The new, additional restrictions are not blanket restrictions. These tailored restrictions will make the U.S. safer and more secure. And countries that make the necessary improvements will have their restrictions removed accordingly.”

The Trump administration lifted restrictions on the nation of Chad in 2018, a year after it was added to the original list.

Trump has told aides he plans to run for reelection on his immigration record and his pledge to complete more than 500 miles of new barriers along the Mexico border by early next year.

His administration has completed about 120 miles so far, according to the latest construction figures, but the White House is expected to unveil plans in coming weeks that would call for building nearly 900 miles of new barriers by 2022, mostly with money diverted from Defense Department budgets.