Editorial: Trump’s war against immigration is grinding on — with unfortunate success

President Trump tours the U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Diego.
Over the last three years, President Trump has acted unilaterally, and often in defiance of Congress, to reshape federal immigration policy.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigration was a highly contentious issue in the U.S. long before President Trump took office, but his ascension to power, his predisposition to unilateral action, and his willful ignorance about immigrants and their value to the American economy have made the discussion even more fractious, if that’s possible. The situation is especially fraught because of Trump’s racially framed view of the world, and because Congress is too ineffectual to stand up to him.

In fact, over the last three years, the Trump administration has simply ignored Congress, and in some cases, federal law, to reshape U.S. immigration policy through a series of executive orders, departmental rulings and internal directives. It has been a broad, multipronged assault on decades of U.S. policy that had encouraged immigrants from a cross-section of the world to come to this country. Among those the U.S. had encouraged were aging parents reunifying with their immigrant children, workers with in-demand skills, wealthy entrepreneurs willing to invest their money here, and the lucky — people who won visas in annual lotteries from nations underrepresented in the other immigration categories. And the U.S. lived up to a long-standing commitment to take in refugees from war zones and those who suffer persecution in their home countries.

That has all changed not because of congressional action, but because of congressional inaction. Into the void leapt Trump and his nationalistic minions, who have dramatically redefined the criteria to determine who is allowed to become an American, how they must get here, and where they must come from, and what kinds of reasons are acceptable — all without congressional input. And, in some cases, in flat-out defiance of congressional intent.


Some of the changes have been the subject of high-profile legal challenges, and in some cases, the administration has been rebuffed. But in other cases, the courts have proved willing to let Trump’s policies proceed, creating a miasma of confusion over the government’s actions. Like a massive ground war, the administration’s march against immigration continues.

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For example, one of Trump’s signature issues has been his misconceived dream of drastically replacing and extending existing walls and fences along the southern border and, infamously enough, insisting that Mexico pay for it (it hasn’t, and won’t). When Congress refused to provide the funds Trump wanted, he declared a national emergency and ordered the Pentagon to reallocate cash Congress had budgeted for other purposes to boost total wall funding this year to more than $10 billion. That means delayed or canceled purchases of military equipment such as F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9 Reaper drones, and delayed renovations to buildings on military bases deemed hazardous to service members, among other crucial projects. All in defiance of congressional intent, and for an unnecessary wall that will be more useful as a symbol of American isolation and hostility to new arrivals than as a barrier to unauthorized border crossings.

The administration has also effectively sealed off the United States as a haven for the stateless and the persecuted by reducing the number of refugees accepted for resettlement from 110,000 during the last year of the Obama administration to 18,000 in the current year, the lowest cap since Congress approved the refugee resettlement program in 1980. Trump further destabilized the program with an executive order giving local and state governments effective veto power over where refugees are resettled, an unsettling abdication of federal responsibility (currently being challenged in the courts). And he has severely restricted asylum applications by limiting who may apply and forced tens of thousands of people to await decisions on the Mexican side of the border, where many have been brutalized by gangs — the kind of risk they had sought to leave behind. (An appellate court decision on Friday temporarily halted that, but stay tuned.)

Just last week, the president’s new “public charge” rules went into effect, which will in essence slash the number of lower-income and working-class immigrants coming into the U.S. in favor of the wealthy and higher educated, a demographic shift that rights activists says will mean a smaller, richer and whiter pool of immigrants than in recent decades. Again, a decision made by the Trump administration, not Congress. The administration last week also announced the creation of a new denaturalization office in the Justice Department whose mission will be to target for removal people living here legally who the government believes lied on their applications — something the government already does, but dedicating a new office to it sends yet another signal of inhospitality.

And on it goes here in Trumptopia. The president’s core anti-immigrant supporters clearly are getting much of what they wanted from this president. The question is, given the nation’s historic reliance on immigrants for economic growth and innovation, how much worse off are we as a nation because of these policies?