This Is How Immigration Has Actually Changed Under Trump

Some of what you're reading is new, some has been going on for a long time now.

It feels like every day now there's a new story detailing some heart-wrenching mistreatment of immigrants attempting to enter the US or, at times, longtime residents.

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This week alone the administration said it was getting ready to denaturalize US citizens who cheated to get their citizenship, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that domestic and gang violence were not grounds for asylum, and the stories of immigrant parents being separated from their kids systematically keep coming.

Since President Donald Trump took office last year, there's been an increased focus on immigration — so much that it can be confusing to tell what's been going on for years and what's actually new.

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Let's start with what's stayed the same: The conditions undocumented immigrants have been held in while awaiting potential deportation have been terrible for a long time.

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The facilities themselves are easily compared to prisons, and problems common in prisons are also issues in immigration detention centers for adults. Complaints of sexual and physical abuse of adults, for example, are only rarely investigated — only 0.07% out of at least 33,126 complaints between January 2010 and July 2016 were actually looked into, according to an analysis from Freedom for Immigrants, an advocacy group.

Where to hold children detained crossing the border is not a new problem. It last drew the country's attention in 2014.

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That year, more than 47,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border into the US without parents or documents, in a surge that the Obama administration struggled to handle.

During that time, unaccompanied children in the custody and care of US Customs and Border Protection filed numerous complaints against the agency, saying they were threatened, assaulted, and sexually abused. Many of the unaccompanied minors came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Unaccompanied kids like those are at the center of the "1,000 lost children" stories that circulated in late May and early June.

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The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had attempted to contact 7,635 minors and their sponsors, an HHS official told Congress in April, as part of a routine checkup to look into their safety. More than 19% of those kids couldn't be accounted for.

There are a few reasons why that might be the case, including their sponsors — who for most of the missing kids were parents or close relatives — not wanting to be found. But the fact that the government said that it was not "legally responsible" for their well-being sparked outrage when an op-ed about the situation was published in May.

And before the Trump administration came to office, there's evidence that federal agents were already separating families at the border.

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A March 2017 report, Betraying Family Values: How Immigration Policy at the United States Border Is Separating Families, said federal agents were already engaged in the practice, often regardless of humanitarian concerns. But they used it as a form of punishment, not as a formal policy.

When it comes to undocumented immigrants crossing into the US, conditions on the border have changed little compared to previous years despite the heated rhetoric from the White House.

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Trump's push to send extra troops to the southern border and his proposed border wall haven't stemmed border crossings — instead, it's left the deployed National Guard troops doing work like shoveling manure and changing tires.

After a dip in apprehensions last year, the numbers have returned to the levels of previous years, much to Trump's dismay and ire, which he's reportedly unleashed several times at Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

What has changed in recent months goes back to the "zero tolerance" policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April.

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Under the new policy, Sessions ordered prosecutors to pursue charges against people who cross the border illegally — crossing illegally once is a federal misdemeanor, a repeat offense is a felony. In past years, offenders would be deported or go to immigration court for a hearing.

The new prosecutions policy was accompanied by a decision to separate families at the border because children can't go with their parents who are in the custody of US Marshalls and pending trial for illegal entry.

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Previously, families were held together, released, or deported back across the border. A 1997 settlement agreement says kids can’t be held in detention for more than 20 days, and in the past, the Department of Homeland Security would release some of these kids with their mothers. Now, if the parents are caught entering the country illegally, they are sent to detention centers under US Marshal custody and the children are shipped to detention centers for unaccompanied children — generally, the same one where children were held in 2014. They are now considered unaccompanied minors by the federal government.

As of Friday, according to DHS, the Trump administration has separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents in the time since the policy was announced to the end of May.

President Trump has tried to say this policy is due to a law currently on the books, passed under Democrats, a claim he repeated Friday morning. But the assertion is false; no law requires the separation of children from their parents. On Thursday, Sessions attempted to use the Bible to explain why the separations were necessary.

The new policy means that detention centers are filling up, prompting the government to start looking for more spaces.

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NBC News reported Thursday that the Trump administration had selected Tornillo, Texas, as the future site of a “tent city,” with 450 beds to house the overflow of migrant children.

And immigration courts, which were already backlogged, aren't exactly poised to start clearing pending cases anytime soon.

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The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that the immigration court backlog has reached an all-time high of 714,067 cases. When Trump took office, the backlog was at 542,411.

The Trump administration has opted to add more judges to the courts, which both sides of the debate agree is a positive step. But judges and activists were less happy about new Department of Justice policy in April that instituted quotas on the courts, pushing judges to hear 700 cases a year with a 15% appeal rate.

The new quota means that "asylum cases that often have hundreds of pages of supporting documents, hours of testimony, deliberation, the time to make a decision ... all of that is allotted about two-and-a-half hours,” Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told Roll Call. “Clearly, this is not justice.”

Sessions also recently announced that the US would no longer consider domestic abuse or gang-related violence reasons to grant people asylum.

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"Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum," Sessions wrote in his opinion to immigration court judges. "The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim."

These new policies, and the administration's stance, more broadly, have had an effect on how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carries out its work as well.

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Last year, the number of ICE arrests climbed to a three-year high, according to the Pew Research Center. The agency made a total of 143,470 arrests in fiscal year 2017, a 30% rise from fiscal year 2016. And, worryingly, there have been reports of ICE going after naturalized citizens for minor infractions from years ago. Still, there was a 6% overall decline in removals, according to ICE data.

Those arrests led to at least 11 people dying while in ICE custody. Seven people have died this fiscal year already, which advocates say is due to a lack of quality medical care.

Trump has repeatedly attacked legal methods of immigration, too, linking extending visas to family members of immigrants to terrorism and gang violence.

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The Trump administration has also announced it's going to add a "citizenship question" to the US Census.

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the change in March, and already more than two dozen states and cities and numerous activist groups have taken the administration to court to remove it. They argue that asking participants if they're US citizens will discourage noncitizens from taking part, throwing off the once-a-decade count, especially given the current anti-immigration climate in the country.

A memo from the Census Bureau found that adding the question would be “very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources,” but Ross overruled that choice. A recently released set of documents shows then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is a known advocate for clamping down on immigration to the US, lobby Ross on the issue.

And last September, Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has been in limbo on Capitol Hill ever since.

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A new bill under consideration in the House of Representatives would provide DREAMers, the beneficiaries of DACA, with a path to citizenship — but would also appropriate $25 billion to fund Trump's proposed border wall.

That's where things stand for now. Sessions, while still not in Trump's good graces, seems to be committed to moving forward with his immigration policies, despite the uproar.

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But activists are working to use the court system to block some of the more controversial parts of Sessions' plans. The American Immigration Lawyers Association said it will take Sessions to court over his ruling on asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.

“This case will certainly be litigated and we will turn to the independent federal courts to step up and rectify this shameful chapter in our country’s history,” the group said in a press release.