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Under Trump, hundreds of small changes in immigration rules have had a huge impact

Now, immigration advocates say, it’s up to the incoming Biden administration to identify and undo this myriad of often hard-to-catch revisions.

Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf spoke about immigration and security in front of a new section of the Trump administration's border wall on Oct. 29, 2020, in McAllen, Texas.
Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf spoke about immigration and security in front of a new section of the Trump administration's border wall on Oct. 29, 2020, in McAllen, Texas.Read moreJOEL MARTINEZ / AP

Immigration lawyers call it the ”no-blank-space policy.”

In 2019, the Trump administration imposed a rule requiring immigrants seeking asylum or other humanitarian relief to fill in every space on the application, even if the question doesn’t apply to them. If they leave one spot empty — say, they don’t write down a middle name, because they don’t have one — the document is rejected.

That causes more than delay in refiling. It can derail entire claims and open the door to deportation. Last week two national immigrant-advocacy groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop the rule’s use.

But the blank-space policy is no outlier. It’s among hundreds of Trump administration changes in forms, regulations, and fees that appear tiny and technical but that in combination significantly impact the nation’s immigration system. Now, advocates say, it’s up to the incoming Biden administration to identify and undo the often hard-to-catch revisions.

“It’s been a barrage of more restrictive rules and regulations, and even interpretations of rules and regulations,” said David Bennion, a Philadelphia lawyer and executive director of the Free Migration Project, which advocates for fair immigration laws. “It’s been hard to keep track of them all.”

The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, a nonpartisan research agency, tried to count them — and came up with more than 400 changes, big and small. Some are aimed at certain groups, like asylum-seekers, and one is targeted at immigrants from a single country, Liberia.

“If you know anything about the government, you know how slowly it moves, and how difficult it is to get anything through the bureaucracy,” said Sarah Pierce, an MPI analyst and coauthor of Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System, a study that examined scores of Trump revisions. “It’s a testimony to how determined they were. … They pushed boundaries wherever they could.”

The administration’s genius, she said, was ensuring that each slight alteration built upon and reinforced others. For example, in 2018 the State Department revised its consular manual, empowering officers to limit the amount of time that nonimmigrant visas, such as those issued to students and tourists, would be valid. As a result, visa-holders must apply for renewals more often. That, in turn, more frequently subjects them to other Trump administration changes that have toughened the vetting of foreign nationals.

The White House referred Inquirer questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not immediately respond. The agency that administers the blank-space policy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said it does not comment on matters under litigation.

“I think the president wanted to make the process of immigration legal and fair,” said Lou Barletta, a Trump supporter who took a hard-line immigration position both as a congressman and the mayor of Hazleton and who has been mentioned as a future GOP candidate for Pennsylvania governor. “He’s pro legal immigration.”

Even detractors concede that the president, as promised, delivered one of the most activist immigration agendas ever, transforming the goals and direction of the system across government agencies.

“The Trump presidency will have lasting effects on the U.S. immigration system long after his time in office,” MPI said in its study, deeming it “unlikely that a future administration will have the political will and resources to undo all of these changes at anywhere near a similar pace.”

For instance, MPI found:

  1. In 2017, the State Department mandated that any visa applicant who officers decide “warrants additional scrutiny” must provide 15 years of information on travel, housing, and employment.

  2. In 2018, a new regulation sped the destruction of green cards, employment authorizations, or other documents that were returned to USCIS because of a mailing problem. Previously the agency held on to the papers for a year. That was cut to 60 days.

  3. In 2018, the administration ended “Deferred Enforced Departure,” which currently provides protection from deportation for only one nationality, Liberians. As many as 3,600 could face removal in January.

  4. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used never-before-implemented powers of a 1996 law to levy fines of up to $799 a day on immigrants who remain in the country after a removal order.

  5. In 2020, USCIS sought to raise fees for many immigration and naturalization benefits, in some cases doubling or even tripling them. The application to become a naturalized citizen, for instance, would increase more than 80%, from $620 to $1,160. In September, a federal judge blocked the changes, at least temporarily.

It was in October 2019 that USCIS began rejecting forms that included blank spaces.

The policy is “emblematic of the worst and most ridiculed changes to the system,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group. “It’s clearly designed to throw a wrench in the gears.”

Instead of leaving empty spaces on I-589 forms, used to apply for asylum, applicants are supposed to write “none,” “not applicable,” or “unknown.”. In actuality, forms that didn’t specifically use “N/A” were rejected, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

AILA studied the rejection of 189 of the forms and found that all were turned back because of blank spaces.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco on Thursday by the Northwest Immigration Rights Project and the National Immigration Litigation Alliance seeks to end what it called this “tectonic shift” that requires government employees “to arbitrarily reject thousands of applications from vulnerable immigrants.”

”The consequences of the agency’s rejection policy are harsh,” the groups said in a statement. “Applicants have missed the deadline for applying for asylum, lost the ability for their children, siblings, or parents to obtain status, incurred additional costs related to refiling, and been denied eligibility for work permits.”

From late 2019 through July 2020, the suit states, USCIS rejected nearly 12,000 petitions for U visas. That type of visa can be granted to undocumented migrants who are victims of violent crimes such as assault, kidnapping, or domestic violence, and who then assist law enforcement authorities in the investigation.

U visas provide not only permission to stay and work but also a path to U.S. citizenship. The process is neither fast nor simple.

The application requires that the police agency or prosecutor sign an accompanying certification, called a Supplement B. That crucial document — no U visa will be granted without it — expires after six months. So, rejection of the main form because of a blank space can push the police certification to expiration, placing people in danger of deportation.

That’s what happened at Philadelphia-based HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal and support services to immigrants and refugees, as it helped dozens of clients file for U visas, asylum, and other relief last summer.

The U visa rejections came without warning, and the reasons seemed absurd, said Vleidmy Velarde, who supervises the agency’s Immigrant Victims of Crime Initiative. On the form, a client would answer that he had no children, only to have his application rejected because the next question, left blank, asked for the names of those children.

“The risk that the immigrants are taking is high, because they’re coming out of the shadows, saying, ‘Here I am, I’m undocumented, but I want to help,’ ” she said. “On top of everything, they’re already victims of crimes, dealing with the trauma.”

The rejections left the HIAS Pennsylvania staff scrambling to redo forms in varying stages of submission.

“All these applications we had filed got rejected,” said executive director Cathryn Miller-Wilson.

In past administrations, when a small bureaucratic change inadvertently caused havoc, HIAS Pennsylvania and other advocacy agencies could contact the government and get it resolved.

“But now we know it was intentional,” Miller-Wilson said. “It was intentionally putting people at risk of deportation.”