No Country for the Needy: Trump’s Immigration Lockdown

Humanitarian aid and human rights, not detention and deportation, must be at the center of U.S. immigration policy moving forward. Looking back at the original article written for Newschasers: The Rhetoric of Trump in Essays and Commentaries in 2017, Luqman Abdullah updates his research and commentaries post-Trump presidency.

By: Dr. Luqman M. Abdullah


Humanitarian aid and human rights, not detention and deportation, must be at the center of U.S. immigration policy moving forward. The measures Donald Trump enacted while he was in office were reflective of his racist ideological beliefs and xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants, regardless of how or why they were seeking to enter the country. Through demonizing migrants as criminals who threaten the safety and economic stability of the nation, Trump weaponized U.S. immigration policy against groups he deemed unworthy to share in the benefits of American society. Rather than ‘make America great again’, Trump’s immigration policies have acted to weaken the national economy and tarnish America’s international reputation among its allies by denying access to all migrants seeking to come to America. Fortunately, many of the executive orders issued by the Trump administration can be reversed by the Biden administration through a commitment to correct the errant course set by those previously occupying the oval office. We can only hope that is the goal of President Biden and his advisors, as they will have their work cut out for them in cleaning up the mess Trump has made.

During his tenure as President, Donald Trump was behind one of the biggest overhauls of national immigration policy the United States has seen in modern times. Despite being in office for only one term, the Trump administration’s actions toward shaping America’s immigration policy have been far-reaching—impacting everything from border security to visa issuance—and in many cases detrimental to the well-being of the nation. Much of this was accomplished in part due to his go-it-alone, unilateral approach that bypassed traditional avenues of checks and balances reserved for the other branches of government, particularly the legislative branch as embodied by Congress. By utilizing the power of executive order, Trump made over 400 policy changes on immigration, which will likely have a lasting effect on the U.S. immigration system for years to come.[1] The Trump administration carried forth the same tactic that was so rewarding during his presidential campaign—fearmongering, and by pitting those fears against vulnerable populations Trump was able to paint them as the “other” and galvanize support from his base. What follows is a brief review of some to the actions the Trump administration has taken to alter U.S. immigration policy—all in the name of fostering national security, economic prosperity, and generally making America great, again.

Detain, Deport and Deny

As discussed previously, Trump’s rhetoric regarding immigration has been steeped in racial stereotypes and White nationalist sentiment since he began campaigning for the presidency. A large part of Trump’s campaign was built on convincing his supporters that he would take a tough stance on unlawful border crossings and reduce the overall numbers of what his administration characterized as “illegal” immigrants stemming from Mexico and South America. Early on, to make good on his campaign promises, Mr. Trump issued executive orders that embodied his approaches to dealing with undocumented immigrants already in the country, and those attempting to enter the U.S.—villainize, detain, deport, and deny entry—by any means necessary.

Executive order 13768, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” pushes for increased deportation of non-citizens from “sanctuary cities” by cutting off municipal access to federal grant monies and uses local law enforcement arrest data to identify non-citizens living in the U.S.[2] The executive order also calls for the prompt deportation of any non-citizens charged with any criminal offense, regardless if they have been convicted or not. The order uses denigrating and dehumanizing language such as “alien” and “criminal” to describe people who enter the country through extra-legal means, irrespective of whether they are doing so to flee persecution or death.[3] Again, the characterization of these people as a nefarious criminal element that threatens American society is key to stoking the racial fears—and subsequent support—of Trump’s base. This fearmongering often leads to real political and social consequences. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) made 30 percent more arrests during the first year of Trump’s presidency (2017) than it did in the previous year—and 146 percent more arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions.[4]

Contrary to the claims of the Trump administration, research shows that undocumented immigrants do not commit crimes at greater rates than U.S. citizens, and there is no evidence that crimes committed by non-citizens has increased in recent years.[5] In fact, a recent study examining crime rates between undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens in Texas, contradicts Trump’s claims of increases in violence and crime committed by non-citizens:

We find that undocumented immigrants have substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses. Relative to undocumented immigrants, U.S.-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.[6]

Despite these facts, in 2018 Trump signed a memorandum to deploy up to 4,000 National Guard members along the border to assist Border Patrol and DHS agents with security measures. Among Trump’s most ill-advised and egregious attempts to ‘secure the border’ and discourage migrants from crossing into the United States was the zero-tolerance policy adopted toward migrant parents. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announced in 2018 that parents caught crossing the border would be arrested on sight and separated from their children.[7] What followed was a humanitarian disaster that saw thousands of children of various ages being held in detention centers at the border not being able to contact their parents or know what was happening to them. Facing mounting pressure from all sides, Trump signed an executive order in June of 2018 ending the child separation policy, but only after nearly 2,300 children were separated from their parents and likely traumatized by the experience.[8]

Another executive order the Trump administration issued was “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.” A centerpiece of his campaign, Trump promised American voters that he would construct a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep “bad hombres” out of U.S. territories.[9] The order claims the wall is supposed to “prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism”—which is another clear message to his supporters that undocumented persons coming into the U.S. are depraved lawbreakers fixated on wreaking havoc across the country.[10] Specifics on how this massive construction project was to be funded were never clearly spelled out by the administration and when asked how this would be accomplished on the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly stated that Mexico would finance the wall. Mexico did not pay for the wall, nor did Trump receive the $18 billion he subsequently requested from Congress the following year for the wall’s construction.

Relentless in his approach, in 2019 Trump declared a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border and called on Congress to allocate $5.7 billion to construct his wall. This declaration was a not-so-veiled attempt to pressure Democratic leaders into accepting his demands or risk a continuation of the partial government shutdown that had been in effect for 17 days prior due to Trump’s refusal to sign Congress’ continuing resolution without funds allocated for the wall. Again, Trump stressed that he would not sign any legislation that did not include funding for his border wall project. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) swiftly rejected Trump’s ultimatum and called on him to “stop holding the American people hostage, stop manufacturing a crisis, and reopen the government.”[11] Trump ultimately signed a bipartisan spending bill that reopened the government and allocated $1.33 billion for 55 miles of border barriers.

Deeming this amount of funding inadequate, Trump declared a national emergency in order to secure more funding for his border wall and pledged to siphon an additional $6.7 billion from the Defense Department and other sources.[12] In his televised address he stated his decision was “a great thing to do because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people.”[13] The bold and widely criticized political maneuver drew condemnation from Democratic leaders, exclaiming “the president’s unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe. The president is not above the law. The Congress cannot let the president shred the Constitution.”[14] Despite the propaganda, posturing and funding, the Trump administration only managed to construct 80 miles of new border barriers where there had not been any before, and this was accomplished through dogged unilateralism and running headlong against his opposition.[15] Although construction of the border the wall was a key selling point his immigration policy pitch, Trump also resorted to other means to carry out his reforms.

No ‘Good’ Immigrants

Trump’s nationalist ideological views came into full display during his presidency and arguably nowhere more visible than in his immigration policies. One of the lasting features of Trump’s immigration policies is that they not only targeted “illegal” immigration, but also legal means of coming into the U.S. Trump proclaimed his economic platform would put “America first” by prioritizing American manufacturers and workers through his policies. What this boiled down to be an immigration policy stance that was oppositional to anything foreign—including those seeking to legally bring their talents and resources to the United States. According to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, the number of legal immigrants is projected to decline by 49 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2021 as a result of Trump administration policies.[16] Although Trump heralded these actions as precipitating a boon for the national economy and American workers, economists have raised alarm that curtailing immigration at these levels would in fact have the opposite effect on the U.S. economic revival:

Immigrants and their children contributed more than 50 percent of workforce growth in the past two decades. Due to the retirement of baby boomers and population aging in general, immigration will play an even larger role in workforce growth going forward than it has in the past. Absent offsetting increases in productivity growth, less immigration will, therefore, translate directly into slower gross domestic product growth.[17]

According to the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, the annual labor force growth in the U.S., which is a key indicator of economic growth, will be 59 percent lower due to Trump’s immigration policies.[18] The Trump administration’s actions on immigration have not fostered conditions for economic prosperity and growth for the nation, rather they have put the country on a path toward further economic distress, all while supposedly making America great again.

Trump’s xenophobic attitudes and White nationalist beliefs permeate his immigration policies. The impacts of those policies on the international refugee community have been nothing less than dramatic. In January 2017 Trump issued executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which in effect suspended the U.S. refugee admission program for 120 days, indefinitely halted the admission of refugees from Syria, and called for a review of the refugee admission process. It also limited the number of refugees to be admitted to the U.S. in 2017 to fewer than 50,000.[19] Subsequently, immigrants from several countries with large Muslim populations, which included Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and others, were banned from entry into the U.S. for at least 90 days.[20] Through extension of these xenophobic policies, fiscal year 2020 saw the lowest ceiling set for refugee admissions in U.S. history at 18,000.[21] Unfortunately, the administration’s attack on foreigners did not stop there. Despite worsening conditions in several Central American countries, the Trump administration took a hardline approach towards asylum seekers and enacted several measures to decrease admissions of those seeking refuge in the U.S. A report from the Migration Policy Institute lays out several of the initiatives that acted in concert to help fulfill Trump’s goal of keeping America as racially homogenous (White) as possible:

At the southwest border, these [initiatives] include metering (the practice of allowing a limited number of asylum seekers to present themselves daily at ports of entry), the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico”), a ban on asylum eligibility for migrants who have failed to seek asylum and receive an official rejection in a transit country, agreements with Central American governments to return asylum seekers to countries in the region to request protection there (Asylum Cooperation Agreements), and programs to speed up the adjudication of asylum and other humanitarian protection cases (Prompt Asylum Case Review and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process).[22]

The net effect of the Trump administration’s policies toward asylum seekers has been to deter some migrants from seeking protections in the U.S. and make successful case outcomes more elusive.[23] The Trump administration continued its assault on immigrant populations through nearly all possible means available to it, including suspending approval of H-1B petitions for highly skilled foreign born workers, increasing denials of military naturalizations, eliminating the Diversity Lottery, and rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As history has shown, Trump’s policy of wholesale denial of immigrants will likely have real economic consequences for the nation. In a study examining the last American recession, economists discovered that denial of H-1B visas due to imposed annual limits, impeded job growth for U.S-born professionals.[24] Finally, the COVID-19 outbreak had a significant impact on the implementation of Trump’s immigration policies. In fact, the outbreak of the pandemic in Trump’s last term allowed for his immigration agenda to be pushed at a greater pace than before—using public health and the growing economic crisis as guises to execute his plans. In 2020, Trump exercised Title 42—a clause of the 1944 Public Health Services Law that mandates all unauthorized foreign nationals to be pushed back to their home countries without a chance to apply for asylum due to their perceived public-health risk.[25] Unfortunately, the Biden administration has continued this policy for the time being, using it to disperse primarily Haitian migrant camps in Del Rio, Texas.[26]

[1] Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” Migration Policy Institute Report, July 2020.

[2] There is no legal definition of “sanctuary” cities or jurisdictions, but they are generally understood as jurisdictions that restrict cooperation with federal immigration authorities in some way, some more severely than others. White House, “Executive Order : Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” January 25, 2017, accessed on October 20, 2021,

[3] White House, “Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” January 25, 2017, accessed on October 20, 2021,

[4] Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” Migration Policy Institute Report, July 2020.

[5] Michael T. Light, Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey, “Comparing Crime Rates Between Undocumented Immigrants, Legal Immigrants, and Native-Born US Citizens In Texas,” PNAS 117, no. 51 (December 2020).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alicia A. Caldwell, “Sessions Rules Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence Can’t Always Win Asylum,” Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2018, accessed on October 19, 2021,

[8] Will Weissert, Amy Taxin and Colleen Long, “Plans Unclear for Reuniting Separated Immigrant Children,” AP News, June 22, 2018, accessed on October 23, 2021,

[9] Adam Kealoha Causey, “To some, Trump’s ‘Bad Hombres’ is Much More Than a Botched Spanish Word,” PBS News Hour, October 20, 2016, accessed on October 23, 2021,

[10] White House, “Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” January 25, 2017, accessed on October 20, 2021,

[11] Rebecca Ballhaus, “Trump Declares Emergency Over Wall, Inviting Likely Court Fight,” Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2019, accessed on October 23, 2021,

[12] Ibid.

[13]Jordan Fabian, “Trump Declares National Emergency at Border,” The Hill, February 15, 2019, accessed on October 25, 2021,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Christopher Giles, “Trump’s Wall: How Much Has Been Built during His Term?” BBC News, January 12, 2020, accessed on October 25, 2021,

[16] Stuart Anderson, “Trump Cuts Legal Immigrants By Half And He’s Not Done Yet,” Forbes, July 21, 2020, accessed on October 22, 2021,

[17] Pia Orrenius and Chloe Smith, “Without Immigration, U.S. Economy Will Struggle to Grow,” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, April 9, 2020, accessed on October 23, 2021,

[18] Stuart Anderson, “Trump Cuts Legal Immigrants By Half And He’s Not Done Yet,” Forbes, July 21, 2020, accessed on October 22, 2021,

[19] – White House, “Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorists Entry Into the United States,” March 6, 2017, accessed on October 23, 2021,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” Migration Policy Institute Report, July 2020.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, “Interlocking Set of Trump Administration Policies at the U.S.-Mexico Border Bars Virtually All from Asylum,” Migration Information Source, February 27, 2020.

[24] Giovanni Peri, Kevin Shih, Chad Sparber, and Angie Marek Zeitlin, “Closing Economic Windows: How H-1B Visa Denials Cost U.S.-Born Tech Workers Jobs and Wages During The Great Recession,” The Partnership for a New American Economy, June 2014.

[25]– Armondo Garcia, Deena Zaru, and Quinn Owen, “What Is Title 42? Amid Backlash, Biden Administration Defends Use of Trump-Era Order to Expel Migrants,” ABC News, September 26, 2021, accessed on October 27, 2021,

[26] Ibid.

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Dr. Luqman M. Abdullah

Luqman Abdullah is an independent scholar, whose research focuses on the intersectional dynamics of race and politics, cultural forms of resistance and retention, and African centered epistemological challenges to socio-cultural hegemony. Luqman holds a master of professional studies in Africana studies from Cornell University. He also holds a doctorate of philosophy in political science from Howard University.

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