Tracking Trump’s notable immigration policy changes

By Zoë Watkins


immigration Politics
Share this story

President Donald Trump had a specific immigration agenda when he entered the White House in 2017: Stem the flow of immigrants — both legal and undocumented.

He implemented measures that cut legal immigration by nearly 50% and banned residents of mostly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. He began to build a wall between Mexico and the Southwest U.S. and increased border patrols agents who arrested and detained thousands of people, many times separating young children from their parents.

“His legacy will be tearing children from the arms of their mothers and the Muslim ban,” Julia Toro, a Washington, D.C., immigration lawyer, said. “Those are the most horrendous [examples] that are obvious and in the public eye.”

The Investigative Reporting Workshop followed the Trump administration’s immigration policies since he took office and provided updates via a four-year timeline. A summary of the former president’s actions follows.

Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border

“Build the wall!” was a powerful slogan used to fuel Trump’s first presidential campaign. His most notable and perhaps most controversial policy was the construction of about 450 miles of his proposed 700-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite the fact that both candidate and President Trump pledged that Mexico would pay the billions of dollars needed for the wall, the U.S. has picked up all the costs.

In the early days of his administration, Trump issued an executive order providing resources to create additional immigration detention centers close to the border and later won a court case allowing his administration to allocate funds from the U.S. Defense Department for the wall. The Department of Homeland Security waived 37 environmental laws and other regulations to fast track the construction.

The administration hoped a physical barrier would stop undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. But neither the barriers nor increased legislation stopped the flow, with migrant caravans traveling from Central America through Mexico on their way to the border.

One of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to sign a proclamation halting construction on the wall, saying “no more American taxpayer dollars” would be diverted for the project. “… building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution,” the order says. “It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.”

Implementing travel bans

A few days after rolling out plans to build the wall, Trump signed another executive order, this time calling for a 90-day ban restricting citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — from entering the U.S.

That action set off a wave of protests here and abroad. A federal judge quickly blocked deportation of visitors with valid visas who had been detained at airports. Another federal judge temporarily blocked the ban.

Two months later, Trump signed a revised executive order banning citizens from six of the countries in the original order, but not Iraq. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Iraq was important in the continuing fight against the Islamic Republic. The order required the Department of Justice to provide the White House with reports about immigrants who had been convicted of international terrorist-related crimes. Two federal judges blocked that revised order.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration in June 2017, temporarily reinstating the travel ban, specifically targeting immigrants without any family connection in the U.S.

The Trump administration revised the travel ban executive order for the third time in September 2017 to bar citizens of Venezuela and North Korea. In addition, residents of Chad were barred from holding tourist and business visas.

Trump also paused the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program for 120 days. When it resumed, refugees faced tougher vetting and security measures. Each administration limits the number of refugees who will be allowed into the country and that number can fluctuate depending on world events. The number declined significantly under Trump, with his administration proposing to allow just 15,000 immigrants into the U.S. in fiscal year 2021, down 3,000 from the previous year. In comparison, the Obama administration set the 2017 cap at 110,000 based on the crisis in Syria. Then-candidate Biden said he would set an annual target of about 125,000.

‘Dreamers’ lose protection

The Trump administration announced Sept. 5, 2017, that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals commonly called the Dreamers Act. The programs, created by President Obama in 2012,  granted temporary protections to more than 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the termination of the DACA program was “arbitrary and capricious,” writing that Trump’s action to end the program was unlawful.

On July 28, 2020, the Trump administration said it would limit work permits for DACA recipients to one year rather than two, a move geared toward preventing Dreamers from reapplying and shrinking the number of participants. The administration also said it would reject new applications while it weighed the program’s future.

A federal judge ordered the Trump administration in December 2020 to fully restore DACA and allow work permits for two years.

Zero Tolerance Policy

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in May 2018 that it had implemented a “zero tolerance” policy and would prosecute all undocumented migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. The policy also allowed asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely and allowed authorities to separate children under 18 from their parents. Those children were transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters across the country to wait for further processing.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit to halt family separation and reunite families.

Trump, responding to criticism, signed an executive order just weeks later halting most separations. Shortly after, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite families immediately. But the reunification process has been slow and complicated. In April 2019, the Trump administration said in court documents that it may take years to locate children and reunite them with their parents. The parents of 545 children separated at the border had not been located as of October 2020, according to The New York Times. The children had been placed in shelters, but immigration authorities did not keep records of who their parents were or how to contact them.

In December 2020, a court-appointed committee created to reuniting families could not find 628 parents of children separated at the border.
Immigration advocates are currently working to reunite families while hoping the Biden administration will allow deported parents to reunite with their children in the United States, according to USA Today.

Temporary Protected Status ends

In November 2017, the Trump administration announced it would end the Temporary Protected Status for Nicaraguans and Haitians. Not long after, citizens from other TPS-designated countries were in danger of losing their protections to stay in the country as well.

TPS allows foreign nationals to stay in the United States temporarily if something catastrophic, such as war or natural disasters, keeps them from safely returning home.

Migrant Protection Protocols

The Trump administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MMPs, in January 2019 to require immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their cases were considered. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that MPP stripped migrants of their asylum rights and granted nearly a year-long injunction. However, immigration hearings have slowed dramatically because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions; more than 66,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico and DHS has announced it would temporarily turn away asylum seekers without processing.

Public Charge Rule

In August 2019, U.S.Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a final “public charge” rule authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to deny green cards to immigrants who have received public benefits such as Medicaid, nutrition, housing or other forms of government assistance.

Immigration groups vowed to fight the plan while the National Immigration Law Center called the move a “race motivated wealth test on immigrant families.”On the same day two months later, federal courts in California, New York and Washington issued injunctions temporarily blocking the rule.

Moving forward

The Investigative Reporting Workshop will continue its coverage of immigration issues under the Biden administration.