December 29, 2017

Trump’s 2018 immigration plan: Overhaul the system and build the border wall

President Trump's second year in office likely will focus on overhauling the legal immigration system, after combatting illegal immigration during his first year.

The first 11 months of the Trump presidency were focused on enhancing border security, interior enforcement, and national security.

"The president has made it clear that my number one priority as secretary of homeland security is to protect America from all threats. Making America safe starts with securing our borders, increasing interior immigration enforcement, protecting our communities, and dismantling transnational criminal organizations," recently confirmed Kirstjen Nielsen told the Washington Examiner.

The number of illegal immigrants who Customs and Border Protection officers apprehended at U.S. borders dropped 24 percent from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017 to the lowest level since 1971.

In January, Trump issued an executive order that rescinded an order by former President Barack Obama that had loosened deportation priorities. Obama's Priority Enforcement Program created a tier system that prioritized criminal illegal immigrants for deportation. Trump's change allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target virtually any illegal immigrant who has had a run-in with the law. ICE reported a 92 percent increase in the number of criminals deported in fiscal 2017.

"Illegal immigration has declined dramatically over the last year under President Trump," said acting DHS press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton. He credited the department's "review of procedural, policy, regulatory and legislative changes," some of which have been approved and will be implemented soon.

Enforcement and the wall

Trump in January signed an executive order instructing the Department of Homeland Security to ramp up immigration enforcement, but the department is struggling with a lack of funding.

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Dan Hetlage said the agency doesn't currently have money for the 5,000 CBP officers Trump wants hired or the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“The border wall will be a major initiative for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2018 – once funded. Another major initiative is the hiring of Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. We’ve already put processes in place and are building momentum on the recruiting front," Hetlage said.

In addition, CBP is waiting for a permanent director. Trump in May tapped acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to lead the agency. His nomination has advanced through committee but is waiting for a full Senate vote.

ICE faces a similar leadership issue. Trump nominated Obama holdover Thomas Homan in mid-November to permanently oversee the agency, but he has yet to be confirmed.

The Senate is expected to approve the nominations in early 2018.

Meanwhile, border wall construction cannot start without funding, but Congress' reliance on continuing resolutions instead of an annual budget has repeatedly pushed back the start date. DHS used about $20 million to build eight prototypes in San Diego and is testing them, but would not be able to move forward if the $1.8 billion funding it needs is not passed.

"We have accomplished much, but to fully protect the nation, Congress must adopt legislation that closes the loopholes that incentivize illegal immigration, provides the funds needed to build the wall, and reforms the outdated immigration system," said Nielsen, the third person to oversee DHS after White House chief of staff John Kelly left the agency and was temporarily replaced by Elaine Duke.

The funding will face a congressional battle, as Democrats spent the second half of 2017 telling Republicans they would not fund the wall, even in return for legal protections for 800,000 Deferred Arrival for Childhood Arrivals recipients before the program's March 5 end date. The budget will need Democrats' support to reach the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster.

Tightening up the visa system

The GOP also may try to make changes to the visa system, particularly on "chain migration," which allows green card holders and legal immigrants to sponsor relatives for admission to the U.S.

Trump most recently called for ending chain migration after a Bangladeshi man who tried to bomb the New York City subway was found to have come into the country in 2011 on a visa for children of siblings of U.S. citizens.

"The Trump administration is framing this as a debate about national security, but in truth, the selection process has nothing to do with how we screen and vet those seeking entry. No matter what our selection system is, or where they come from, the applicants will have to be screened for terrorism and criminal ties," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the Bipartisan Policy Center's director of immigration and cross-border policy.

"Instead, this debate will be about who future immigrants should be, and where they should come from – a debate the United States has had twice in the last century: first in the early 1920s with laws that reflected the eugenics movement of the day and restricted immigration to countries that were of preferential stock, and again in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement to eliminate such national-origin quotas. Which way this debate will go remains to be seen," added Brown, who previously oversaw immigration and border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In August, Trump endorsed GOP Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas' revised Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or the RAISE Act, which would implement a merit-based point system for immigrants who apply for legal permanent status, or green cards, through their employers. It steals a page from Canada and Australia, whose immigration laws prioritize high-skilled workers.

What to do about DACA?

Republicans could combine parts of the RAISE Act with a number of DACA-related bills.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., proposed the Border Security and Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act, which would provide $1.6 billion for border security measures, give DACA recipients and other youths a path to permanent residency, and enhance interior enforcement to target gang members.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., proposed the Dream Act in July to give illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least four continuous years protection from deportation and a path to legal status. Applicants would be able to apply for conditional permanent residency, then must obtain lawful permanent residence for five years before being allowed to apply for naturalization.

Republican Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma proposed the Succeed Act, which would give DACA recipients and others a path to green cards, but through a slightly more challenging method. It includes language to crack down further on illegal immigration. The legislation also would prevent chain migration by prohibiting recipients from sponsoring family members for lawful permanent resident status.

Congress has indicated it plans to take up DACA in early 2018, possibly as soon as January.

Trump looks to scale back relief programs

While the administration waits for Congress to find a legislative solution for DACA, it has moved on its own to scale back old programs that have gone unchecked.

The Trump administration will have to decide by early June whether to continue Temporary Protected Status for the 57,000 Hondurans who were shielded from deportation after Hurricane Mitch struck Central American in 1998.

In November, the administration announced Hondurans would be given a six-month extension of the Jan. 5, 2018, expiration date as it decides the fate of the program. However, 2,500 Nicaraguan TPS beneficiaries were given 14 months from November to leave the U.S. or apply for a different visa that would allow them to remain in the country.

Similarly, the administration said it would end provisional residency status for 59,000 Haitians who were allowed to work in the U.S. following the 2010 earthquake.

A senior administration official said to look for actions on TPS programs for El Salvador and Syria in the coming year.

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