On the campaign trail in August 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump departed from his typical stump speech to give an uncharacteristically detailed address in Phoenix that would define his immigration agenda for the next four years.
His thesis was simple: The US immigration system was broken in a way that served “the needs of wealthy donors, political activists, and powerful politicians,” Trump told the crowd. “Let me tell you who it doesn’t serve. It doesn’t serve you, the American people.”
He proceeded to describe, in laundry-list fashion, how he would reinvent the immigration system for what he said was the benefit of American citizens, painting an inaccurate portrait of immigrants as violent criminals and low-skilled workers as stealing American jobs and draining taxpayer resources.
Four years later, Trump has brought his restrictionist immigration agenda to fruition, despite lawsuits from activists who have challenged his policies at nearly every turn.
He built impediments in Central America, at the border, in detention centers, and in immigration courts that have made obtaining asylum nearly impossible for people fleeing violence in their home countries. He vastly expanded immigration detention, rapidly returning migrants to Mexico and prosecuting every immigrant caught crossing the border without authorization. He waged a quiet and effective campaign to reduce legal immigration, using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to reject tens of thousands of visas and green cards. And he has skirted Congress to spend billions on his border wall, though only five new miles of “30-foot high steel bollard fencing” have been constructed so far, the San Antonio Express-News reported earlier in August.
As he seeks a second term, he’s also made it clear that he hasn’t finished. He still wants to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program once and for all, drive out the millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the US and curb their political power, enact what he calls “merit-based” immigration reform, and pursue a slew of restrictive immigration regulations.
The US has already seen the harms of Trump’s first-term immigration policies, which could cut deeper if he’s given another four years: Legal immigration is plummeting, stymying growth in the labor force and threatening the US’s ability to attract global talent and recover from the coronavirus-induced recession. The US has abdicated its role as a model for how a powerful country should support the world’s most vulnerable people. And the millions of immigrants already living in the US, regardless of their legal status, have been left uncertain of their fate in the country they have come to call home.
Other concerns — including the coronavirus, racial justice, and unemployment — have recently eclipsed immigration as a top motivating issue for voters. But for Trump, who currently lags former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls, restricting immigration proved a winning message in 2016, and he will likely try to replicate that strategy again.
“It’s the thing he keeps going back to,” Douglas Rivlin, director of communication at the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said. “It is his comfort zone — to go after people of color and turn them into sort of the specter of scary, violent people as a political strategy.”
Trump delivered on the immigration promises he made in 2016
Trump’s 2016 speech in Arizona was an example of how immigration restrictionists who once occupied the political fringe — such as White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions — have crystallized anti-immigrant rhetoric into policy.
He outlined an aggressive agenda: Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Implement a “zero tolerance” policy meant to prosecute and detain every immigrant who crossed the border without authorization. Hire another 5,000 border agents and triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to track down unauthorized immigrants living in the US. Block “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with ICE from receiving federal funding.
He called for blocking travelers from countries deemed to be security threats due to inadequate screening, including Syria and Libya — a version of the Muslim ban he first proposed in 2015.
And he promised sweeping reforms to the legal immigration system meant to keep immigrants as a share of the US population down, such as by granting visas based on an applicant’s skills and ability to be financially self-sufficient.
The agenda he outlined has become…