California Forum

When walls and visa lines become more of a national symbol than the Statue of Liberty

Last week, Trump ordered thousands of additional active duty military personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border to string yet more concertina barbed wire to ward off destitute asylum-seekers.

On Tuesday night, President Trump devoted much of his State of the Union speech to hyping the dangers of undocumented migrants and pushing for his “great wall.”

In his reading of migration patterns, all undocumented migrants might as well be MS-13 gang members. There was no mention of economic desperation, of people fleeing the very gangs to which Trump claims they belong. He said nothing about the political corruption and environmental collapse pushing migrants northward.

Predictably, in response to all of this rabble-rousing, the Democratic leadership has made resisting the wall a totemic project. But while much attention has been focused on the administration’s locking down and militarizing of the borderlands, another insidious story is unfolding.

Despite the fact that, on Tuesday, Trump said of legal immigrants, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever,” his administration is, in fact, making it more difficult for people to migrate here legally.

For the last two years, team Trump has been dramatically changing and constricting the legal immigration system. They have done so largely out of sight, out of mind, casting their changes as simple regulatory and bureaucratic tweaks.

Those “tweaks” are, however, hugely significant.


Each year, the president releases a presidential determination as to the number of refugees to be admitted the following fiscal year. In the slightly more than seven decades between the end of World War Two and Trump’s election, about three million refugees were welcomed into the United States. In Obama’s last year in office, roughly 110,000 refugees began their lives anew here.

Last year, the number was capped at 45,000. In practice, only about half that number actually made it through the increasingly complex and hostile vetting process and into the United States.

This past fall, Trump missed the legal deadline for releasing his determination about next year’s numbers. And when he did finally get around to announcing it, he capped it at 30,000. Refugee agencies fear the numbers actually admitted will, once again, be only half of this.

Sasha Abramsky.JPG
Sasha Abramsky

Beyond this, consular offices around the world seem to be deliberately slowing down visa processing, making it harder for visitors to come into the country, and also more difficult for would-be immigrants to complete the application process.

Last year, Politico analyzed State Department data and found that, in the first year of the new administration, 13 percent fewer visas were granted than in 2016.

The Administration is rescinding the right of spouses of H1-B visa holders to work here. In practice, this means that many families who rely on two incomes will face strong pressures to return home. And the financial vulnerability of immigrant families was made worse by the administration redefining “public charge” to sharply curtail immigrants’ access to all forms of public benefits, including emergency medical and nutritional assistance.

The list goes on. Some measures affect vast numbers. Others have been tailored to deliberately discriminate against smaller groups.

Fewer international students are being admitted into America, and fewer high-tech experts in new fields, like quantum computing, are managing to secure work visas. In an extraordinary example of vindictive policymaking, the same-sex domestic partners of diplomats stationed in the U.S. are no longer being granted visas to join their partners here.

The diversity lottery, which grants green cards to a few tens of thousands of people from poorer countries and regions, is firmly in Trump’s sights, as is the system of family reunification that has been at the heart of U.S. immigration policy for more than half a century.

And then, of course, there are the millions of Americans in a legal gray zone — people who arrived illegally but were provided some protections, along with the right to work, over the years. These include the hundreds of thousands of people from Central America, Haiti, Sudan and Nepal, granted Temporary Protected Status over the past two decades, as well as hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who were brought out of the shadows by Obama’s executive order.

The Trump administration has tried repeatedly to end both programs. Only a series of court rulings has, for now at least, stopped the administration from criminalizing all of these people and beginning a process of mass deportations that would result in hundreds of thousands of TPS parents being ripped away from their U.S.-citizen children.

Don’t believe Trump’s calming State of the Union words about legal migrants. In reality, there has been a casually sadistic impulse to his approach to immigration from the get-go. If this awful administration can inflict pain on immigrants, especially non-white and poor people, one can bet it will choose to do so.

Trump may not get his vanity wall along the southern border, but he surely has already made the lives of millions of immigrants and would-be immigrants more difficult. Those poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free, they see now not Lady Liberty but concertina wire, armed soldiers and faceless consular officials mandated to view them as invaders out to do America harm.

Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at
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