Fifteen months after taking office, President Trump is fulfilling his pledge to build a “great, beautiful” wall to keep immigrants out. Even if no concrete is ever poured, the wall is effectively being built through executive orders, procedural changes, detentions and deportations.
The government is chipping away at fundamental laws and policies that protect immigrants’ basic rights. Each week, there are new hurdles for immigrants and the advocates who represent them.
This month, Americans for Immigrant Justice is releasing a comprehensive report, “Building the Wall: A New War on Immigrants.” The report describes the systemic dismantling of immigrants’ due-process rights, much of which is occurring under the radar. Policies are in constant flux, the pace of the changes is staggering and the damage being done is incalculable.
The number of immigrants arrested and held in detention is skyrocketing, and innocent children are especially vulnerable, afraid to go to school because their loved ones may not be home when they return. Almost 6 million U.S.-citizen children live with an undocumented parent or family member.
Forget about the “bad hombres.” Long-time residents who have worked hard, paid taxes and have no criminal records fill the growing number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds. Arrests of noncriminal undocumented immigrants increased by 150 percent in early 2017, compared with the same period the previous year. Trump has made all undocumented immigrants priorities for removal.
That includes roughly 900,000 immigrants with prior removal orders who were able to check-in with ICE under previous administrations and were granted legal work permits. Now they risk deportation when they show up for their annual appointments.
Another million-plus immigrants — DREAMers, young people brought to this country as children, and holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted after disasters in their countries — have been told to pack their bags. Many of these people have lived and worked legally in the United States for decades. Even immigrants eligible for green cards are threatened with deportation while their cases are pending.
Meanwhile, asylum seekers entitled to due process under U.S. and international laws are being turned away at the border in record numbers. Our refugee program has also pretty much shut down. And children who risk their lives fleeing horrific gang violence are being stripped of their basic rights and used as “bait” to turn in relatives waiting to take them in.
Legal immigration is in the crosshairs as well, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is working to single-handedly overrule decisions by the Board of Immigration Appeals, with far-reaching consequences for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Exacerbating matters, immigration judges have been told to further increase already alarming caseloads or risk bad evaluations, which the judges says will make it harder for immigrants to receive a fair review of their cases. National Association of Immigration Judges President Emeritus Dana Marks has long voiced concern that immigration judges “hear death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”
While immigration laws and policies were often unduly harsh under both Bush and Obama, those years now seem like the good old days, as AI Justice’s phones ring off the hook as never before with calls from families fearful of being torn apart.
Federal courts have put a temporary hold on some of Trump’s directives, but the president has a great deal of discretion regarding immigration matters. One of our attorneys, a former prosecutor, noted shortly after coming on board, “What I find the most frustrating, as an attorney of 34 years, is the tremendous amount of discretion both the government and the courts have over immigrants’ lives, and the lack of transparency that breeds constitutional deprivations.”
Congress’s failure to enact meaningful immigration reform has left the United States with a massively complex and broken system that fails to provide even the most basic due-process protections and neglects the essential role immigrants play in a thriving economy. Unless Congress steps up and does the right thing, all of us will suffer the consequences.
Cheryl Little is executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice.