Why Trump’s immigration legacy could take time to undo

Daniella Silva

Image: Troops Arrive At U.S. Mexico Border Spots Where Migrant Caravan May Arrive In Coming Weeks

Army soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., string razor wire near the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, in November.John Moore / Getty Images fileNov. 25, 2020, 5:01 AM ESTBy Daniella Silva

When President Donald Trump won the election in 2016, he did so largely with the signature issue of immigration, and in the span of four years managed sweeping changes to the country’s asylum system and along the border.

Now that he’s been voted out of office, immigration experts and advocates say his actions, including policy changes that took place at an “unprecedented” pace, will take some time for a new administration in the middle of an ongoing pandemic to undo.

“He is the only president ever, not just in modern history, who got elected on the basis of his political platform on immigration,” Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told NBC News. “And he kept his promise. He didn’t abandon it after getting elected. That is a huge difference from any prior administration.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said he would reverse a wide array of those changes within his first 100 days in office, but experts said it could take much longer to see the results of those changes.

Three people involved in crafting Biden’s immigration platform have told NBC News that the changes will be hard-fought and that they may not happen all at once.

On Tuesday, Biden announced his intention to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas as his homeland security secretary, the first Latino and the first immigrant picked to head the department.

President-elect Biden picks Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary

Chishti said Trump began his administration by issuing executive orders such as a travel ban and by the end of of his term had mostly dismantled the country’s asylum system. Overall, the institute estimates Trump made more than 400 executive actions to change the immigration system, at an “unprecedented” pace.

Chishti said one of the easier things to accomplish could be reinstating and expanding protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects young immigrants brought to the country as children but lack legal status.

Another policy that could be more quickly undone by Biden would be a return to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement guidelines on serious criminal offenders or national security threats, he said.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said one of the policies that will be more complicated to undo is Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers back to Mexico to wait for their cases. Ending the policy will not answer the question of what to do with those still waiting across the border or how to bring them back and when, which could be a time-consuming process, Garcia said.

“So, to end it doesn’t mean now we have the capacity to bring everyone back right away and I’m very concerned,” he said. “How are we going to handle it?”

Another policy change that will take time will be reuniting the hundreds of families that are still separated as a result of Trump’s controversial family separation policy, which separated thousands of families at the border, he said.

As NBC News has reported, lawyers tasked with finding migrant parents separated from their children by the Trump administration have yet to find parents for 666 of the children.

“We need to bring those families together,” he said.

Chishti said reversing the Trump administration’s public charge regulation would also likely take some time. The rule, which makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain some form of legal status if they have relief on public assistance, is currently being challenged in the courts, he said.

“If it took Trump one year to put it in place, why should it take less time for Biden to unwind it?” he said. “That’s the kind of question we all ask.”

He said Biden will also face the daunting and important task of creating a fair and efficient asylum system after Trump basically ended it through a series of interweaving policy changes that have included some agreements with various nations, including Mexico and Central American countries.

“Did he build a beautiful wall from sea to shining sea? That did not happen, but you could argue on the other hand, he was able to build a wall without using any brick and mortar in the form of the changes in asylum,” he said. “The changes in our asylum regime have been so profound that they have trickled down asylum-seekers entering the U.S. to almost nothing.”

Chishti said one of the longest-term and potentially difficult changes could be an immigration reform package granting status to undocumented immigrants, especially in a potentially divided Congress, where such proposals have historically failed.

“I think the most difficult to accomplish not just because of the pandemic but because of the history of immigration reform in a divided government,” he said.

Garcia said while policy change takes time, narrative change and the image projected by America are also critical.

“What I think about how national policies are developed, it’s not the policy only, but first there is a narrative that shapes policy,” he said.

“There’s already an expression of relief in border communities and families for potential change,” he said.

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