E.g., 09/22/2023
E.g., 09/22/2023
As Trump Takes Office, Immigration Enforcement and Policy Poised to Undergo Major Changes

As Trump Takes Office, Immigration Enforcement and Policy Poised to Undergo Major Changes

Trump GageSkidmore Flickr

The election of Donald Trump, who built his campaign around hardline immigration pledges, will likely bring changes to immigration policy—the extent of which remains to be seen. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Often a flashpoint, immigration became a central theme in 2016 as Donald Trump successfully secured the Republican presidential nomination and the White House, sketching a vision of immigrants and refugees as threats requiring heightened scrutiny and the construction of walls to deter entry. The differing visions on immigration presented by Trump and his general election rival, Hillary Clinton, were stark, with the Democrat promising to consolidate and build upon the Obama administration record of relative tolerance toward immigrants and Trump pledging more enforcement against the unauthorized, stricter screening of legal immigrants, and reductions in overall immigration. Before the 2016 campaign, President Obama had used his executive authority to implement significant changes, including providing work authorization for nearly 750,000 young unauthorized immigrants.

While Obama was stymied by Congress in terms of getting broader legislative immigration reform, President-elect Trump may benefit from a different dynamic considering that his fellow Republicans will hold majorities in both the Senate and House. In addition, if he holds to his campaign pledges, Trump is likely to reverse some of Obama’s most significant executive actions on immigration and implement new administrative policies soon after his inauguration on January 20.

The Trump View of Immigration as Security and Economic Threat

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During his campaign Trump repeatedly associated immigrants with crime, security threats, and job competition for U.S. workers. His views resonated with many as parts of the country struggle to recover from the Great Recession and with recent terrorist attacks at home and abroad fanning fears over border security, refugee admissions, immigration from Muslim countries, and radicalization of immigrants and their children. Aiming to address these concerns, Trump made it a fixture of his stump speeches to pledge construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, deportation of millions of unauthorized immigrants, reversing Obama executive orders such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, reducing refugee resettlement and ending Syrian refugee admissions, and implementing “extreme vetting,” especially for immigrants and refugees from countries viewed as harboring terrorists.

Trump’s best known campaign promise was his pledge to build a “big, beautiful” wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico. While one-third of the border is already fenced, the pledge suggests Trump intends to devote substantially more resources to border security—even as in postelection statements he walked back his earlier promise, suggesting fencing could substitute for the wall in some areas. In a major August 2016 immigration policy speech, Trump proposed increasing the Border Patrol by 5,000 agents—or about 20 percent. This focus on border security would not represent a major policy shift, as border enforcement resources have increased with bipartisan support throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

Though he initially pledged to create a “deportation force” that would deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants, Trump later modulated his stance to focus on those with criminal records. This also represents continuity with the Obama administration, which has increasingly prioritized the removal of noncitizens with criminal convictions. (The criminal share of removals rose from 31 percent in fiscal 2008 to 59 percent in fiscal 2015.) A focus on increased deportations, however, could face significant resource constraints in terms of the deportation officers, detention space, and immigration court capacity needed. Growing opposition to deporting unauthorized immigrants in many major U.S. cities also could limit the incoming administration’s capacity to increase deportations significantly, at least early on.

An end to the DACA program would represent a more substantial shift from the Obama administration. DACA, which has extended temporary work authorization and relief from deportation to 742,000 unauthorized immigrant youth, provoked the ire of many Republicans because Obama initiated the program administratively and in the face of strong congressional opposition. Trump has promised to rescind DACA soon after taking office, though it is not clear whether he would immediately revoke the two-year benefits or allow them to expire. In recent weeks, Trump has appeared to soften his stance on DACA, and a bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to extend temporary immigration benefits to DACA recipients.

During the campaign, Trump also expressed opposition to refugees, especially those fleeing Syria. He repeatedly voiced concerns over the government’s ability to properly vet refugees and suggested slowing the resettlement of refugees to guard against possible terrorist threats. His concerns were echoed by more than 30 U.S. governors in the wake of the ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, carried out by European nationals.

Obama’s Immigration Struggles with Congress and Political Polarization

The Trump administration will inherit a robust immigration enforcement system, which continued its growth under Obama, and will have the opportunity to nullify Obama’s legacy on immigration by reversing his executive actions. When Obama took office, legislative debates over immigration reform had fallen short in the Senate in 2006 and 2007, and the economy was in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. After failing to live up to his promise to introduce an immigration bill within his first year, Obama confronted a climate that became increasingly inhospitable for immigration reform. Unable to get legislation through Congress, Obama turned to administrative action, offering deferred action via the DACA program to as many as 1.4 million eligible unauthorized immigrants. With 742,000 beneficiaries so far, DACA has become the largest relief program for unauthorized immigrants in the three decades since the legalization of nearly 3 million unauthorized immigrants under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

After Obama’s re-election in 2012, attributed in part to strong Latino turnout, Congress again considered immigration reform legislation. In 2013, the Senate passed a sweeping bill that would have legalized 6-8 million unauthorized immigrants while reforming the legal immigration system and further enhancing border security. The House did not take up the legislation. In November 2014, the administration unveiled a series of executive actions making substantial changes to U.S. immigration policy. Among these included an expansion of DACA and the creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), for as many as 3.7 million unauthorized immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. The backlash was severe, with critics denouncing the actions as executive overreach. Twenty-six states sued in federal court to stop DAPA implementation, and a federal judge issued a temporary injunction in February 2015 halting the DAPA program and DACA expansion (leaving the original 2012 DACA program untouched). After a series of failed appeals by the administration, including before a divided Supreme Court, the injunction remains in effect.

Even as he sought to shield millions from removal, Obama was labeled “deporter in chief” for overseeing more formal deportations than any other president: in excess of 2.7 million. The predecessor Bush administration had put in place significant new enforcement machinery, including the Secure Communities federal-state information-sharing program and greater use of penalties for illegal entry at the Southwest border.  That machinery gained momentum during Obama’s first term, such that removals peaked at 417,000 in 2012. Removals then began to fall as revisions to immigration enforcement priorities issued beginning in 2010 began to kick in, dropping to 235,000 in 2015.

A Way Forward for Immigration Reform?

It is not clear whether Trump will have an easier time advancing his immigration agenda on Capitol Hill than his predecessors. Like Obama, Trump will start his term with his party holding both chambers of Congress. If the incoming White House and Republicans are able to find common ground, this may allow Trump to advance those parts of his agenda that require congressional approval, such as increasing appropriations to build a border wall, refocusing legal immigration on high-skilled immigrants, and reducing legal immigration to “historic levels.” In his comments during the campaign, Trump also left open the door to legalizing some unauthorized immigrants after sufficient border security is achieved.

As with Obama, Trump may find that many of his immigration policy goals can be pursued through the use of executive power. These goals include ending DACA, restricting refugee admissions, suspending admissions from certain countries, imposing “extreme vetting” on would-be newcomers, and expanding the scope and scale of deportations. Such policies would reverse many of Obama’s signature policies and, potentially, the policies of presidents from both parties before Trump. Yet when it comes to unilateral executive actions, Trump will also face political, bureaucratic, and resource constraints, and so the most likely way for him to leave a permanent mark on U.S. immigration policy will be in cooperation with Congress.


Related Research


BBC News. 2016. Paris Attacks: Who Were the Attackers? BBC News, April 27, 2016. Available online.

Bump, Philip. 2016. Here’s What Donald Trump Said in His Big Immigration Speech, Annotated.” Washington Post, August 31, 2016. Available online.

Department of Homeland Security. 2016. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2015. Available online.

Mascaro, Lisa. 2016. Trump Promises Relief for ‘Dreamers,’ But Immigrant Advocates Are Taking No Chances. Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2016. Available online.

Migration Policy Institute (MPI). 2014. As Many as 3.7 Million Unauthorized Immigrants Could Get Relief from Deportation under Anticipated New Deferred Action Program. Press release, November 19, 2014. Available online.

Muskal, Michael. 2015. How The U.S. Screens Syrian Refugees to Vet Out Potential Terrorists.” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2015. Available online.

Rosenblum, Marc R. 2015. Written Responses to Questions for The Record, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Oversight of the Administration’s Criminal Alien Removal Policies hearing, 114th Cong., 1st sess., December 2, 2015. Available online.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2016. Number of I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by Fiscal Year, Quarter, Intake, Biometrics and Case Status: 2012-2016 (June 30). Available online.  

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2015. FY 2015 ICE Removals. Available online.

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