Trump Immigration Policy Likely to Focus on Enforcement

By Laura D. Francis

Nov. 9 — The election of Donald Trump means immigration enforcement likely will take over as the core of immigration policy in the next four years.

How quickly Trump’s immigration promises turn into action will depend on what can be done by the president alone and what needs congressional action, Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9. Two things likely to be swift: elimination of the deferred action for childhood arrivals program and a dramatic reduction in refugee admissions, particularly from Syria, she said.

“Managing the enforcement of removal is probably the one thing he could really effectuate,” David Grunblatt, an immigration attorney with Proskauer Rose, told Bloomberg BNA. But Grunblatt, who practices in Newark, N.J., suggested that what Trump actually does could differ from what he promised during his campaign.

“I think he will do something” with DACA and immigration enforcement, Grunblatt said. But it’s one thing to make “big statements” during a campaign and another to deal with their “practical implementation,” he said.

Courage in the Face of Fear

DACA recipients “are absolutely afraid for their families and for their future,” American Immigration Lawyers Association Executive Director Ben Johnson told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9. Yet “they are the most inspiring, most courageous young people I have ever met in my life.”

DACA, established in 2012, provides deportation relief and work permits to young, undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.

During the transition period, Trump “is going to be confronted with the faces and the stories and the real human beings behind that program,” Johnson said. “I believe that it would be hard for any human being to look those kids in the face and say that they deserve to be sent to a land they’ve never known and be denied opportunities in the only place they call home, which is the United States,” he said.

What may be more likely is that rank-and-file employees of the immigration agencies will use Trump’s victory to take a more restrictive attitude toward immigration, Grunblatt said. Those employees may “feel empowered to exercise their discretion” in a “much more restrictive way,” resulting in more application denials, he said.

Something From Congress?

Whether broader immigration changes—which require legislation—will happen depends in large part on Trump being able to reconcile not just Republican and Democratic policy differences, but also differences within the Republican Party itself, Meissner said. “That’s what we have to see,” she said.

Trump promises such as building a wall along the southern border and conducting more deportations of undocumented immigrants also will require Congress, and that could slow down those efforts, said Meissner, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner.

Both actions require appropriations, as the Homeland Security Department doesn’t currently have the resources for either, she said.

“The consensus out there is that the idea of comprehensive immigration reform” that includes a pathway to citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants “is completely off the table,” Grunblatt said. But it’s “certainly a possibility” that piecemeal legislation with an enforcement angle could become law, he said.

‘Huge Setback.’

“There’s no sugar coating the fact that this is a huge setback for whatever progress we’ve been able to make in making the case for immigration reform and for the value of immigrants and immigration to this country,” Johnson said.

At the same time, Trump’s election wasn’t a “resounding endorsement of his policies on immigration,” he said. Rather, it was a “repudiation of Washington politics” and “a reflection of distrust in government.”

There’s a “lot of evidence” that Republican voters don’t support Trump’s immigration campaign promises, Johnson said. Polls have shown that 62 percent of Trump supporters don’t want a border wall, and 74 percent of the Republican electorate supports a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants,” he said.

“There is support for immigration and recognition of the need for sensible immigration reform,” Johnson said. Right now, Republicans’ brand “is ruined in the eyes of the fastest growing electorate in America”: Latinos, Asians and other minorities, he said. “They have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and pass immigration reform proposals that might try to build back that brand,” but “that can only happen if they abandon the ugly divisive rhetoric that has been this campaign for the last 15 months,” he said.

‘New Life’ for Mandatory E-Verify

One area that may “have new life” is mandatory E-Verify, Grunblatt said. The electronic employment verification system matches employees’ records with government databases but currently is voluntary in most cases.

Also possible: legislation adding more protections for U.S. workers in the H-1B program, which provides temporary visas to skilled foreign workers. The program has come under fire in recent months after high-profile cases of companies laying off their information technology workers in favor of H-1B-reliant staffing firms.

Although businesses have been clamoring to raise the annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas for years, Grunblatt doesn’t see that happening. Conservatives who view the program as a threat to American jobs have “no sympathy for businesses” in that regard, he said.

The part of Trump’s late August speech on immigration that “didn’t get much attention” was his remark that he’d like a commission to study “returning to historic norms” in terms of immigration levels, Meissner said. That would mean a reduction in legal—not just illegal—immigration, she said.

But whether that gets implemented is another matter, Meissner said. If Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) remains speaker of the House, his “considerably different” views on immigration may affect what happens, she said. “There has to be a real reckoning” of how broadly Republicans want to go “in the name of party unity.”

State Level Action?

“It could be that the states become even more important” with an immigration overhaul off the table at the national level, Meissner said. That’s likely to result in a “patchwork” of immigration laws across the country as immigrants become a larger population in localized areas, she said.

“There’s nothing about the way that Donald Trump ran that campaign that suggests that he has the personal political skills to be able to be the great unifier,” Johnson said. But the “driving force” in the election was “disgust” at elected leaders’ inability to get anything done, he said.

“The only way that can happen is if Democrats and Republicans work together the way they used to,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.