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The hardest change to immigration policy post-Trump? Ending the mind-set that immigrants are criminals.

Today many people believe that a harsh, enforcement-driven approach is the only and best way to run the immigration system.

Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, which helps immigrants build new lives in the United States.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, which helps immigrants build new lives in the United States.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Like heads of other Philadelphia-based agencies that support and defend immigrants, Cathryn Miller-Wilson has been staggered by the four-year onslaught of nationalist Trump administration directives, policies, and rules.

The incoming Biden administration has pledged to undo as much as it can as fast as it can. But the hardest single thing to change, said Miller-Wilson, director of HIAS Pennsylvania, will be the one that’s not written down on any executive order or legislation:

The belief that immigration equates to criminality, that it’s wrong, a detriment and not a benefit to American society.

“Trump took it to a new level,” said Miller-Wilson, whose agency supports low-income immigrants in building new lives in America. “‘Us and them.’ ‘Good immigrants and bad immigrants.’ ‘Let’s just take the gloves off.’ … That’s going to be really, really hard to undo.”

Most Americans support immigration, polls show, but deep fissures emerge along party lines. Gallup found that 60% of Republicans believe immigrants hurt the economy, while 72% of Democrats say they help. More than half of Republicans want to decrease immigration, compared with only 13% of Democrats.

Today, many people believe that a harsh, enforcement-driven approach is the only and best way to run the immigration system. But that method is relatively new. The agencies that became the public face of President Donald Trump’s crackdown — mainly Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and Customs and Border Protection — didn’t even exist until 2003.

Calls to abolish ICE have become a tenet of activists and more liberal Democratic officials, and been taken up by groups including the American Friends Service Committee. President-elect Joe Biden has not gone that far, saying he’ll ensure that ICE and CBP are professionally run, and its officers held accountable for inhumane treatment of migrants.

People who fight for immigrant rights demand more.

“Biden said, ‘This is not who were are.’ I think that’s harmful,” said Erika Guadalupe Nuñez, executive director of Juntos, the South-Philadelphia-based Latino-rights organization. “It’s exactly who America is, and that’s the problem. If he’s not willing to denounce that and take meaningful measures, like abolishing ICE, and releasing people from detention, it’s going to be empty words.”

The United States that separated families at the border is the same one that separated Black children and parents during slavery, and Native American families during the boarding-school era, she noted. The United States continues to confine many immigrant families with pending asylum cases, even though they could be released to await their court dates. At least 33 people have died in ICE detention between April 2018 and September 2020.

“That’s the reckoning everyone has to face — bold and drastic measures to envision a new future, so we’re not replicating these same oppressive structures,” Nuñez said. “There has to be a clear commitment from the federal level to undo not only years of really stringent immigration laws and xenophobic policies, but to undo Trump’s impact.”

In many ways the Trump administration will continue to dominate the lives of immigrants even after it’s gone.

In four years the administration made more than 400 big and small changes to the nation’s immigration system, spread across the entirety of the federal government. Hundreds of changes in forms, regulations, and fees appear tiny and technical but in combination significantly impact the system.

“The Trump presidency will have lasting effects on the U.S. immigration system long after his time in office,” the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington said in its study of the issue, 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.”

In December, Biden said it would take months to undo some Trump directives, a slower pace than he promised during the campaign. That includes what had been expected to be a fast rollback of the policies that have virtually eliminated asylum.

“There’s going to be really strong tension between the impulse to eliminate all forms of immigration enforcement, what the progressives want, and maintaining some level of enforcement, to make sure there’s integrity in the system,” said Cris Ramón, an independent immigration-policy analyst in Washington.

Biden won’t abolish ICE or CBP, Ramón said. But he thinks the new administration could move away from a deterrent, penalty-laden model, which encourages migrants to avoid contact with the system, and toward one that’s focused on compliance.

Now, for instance, individuals who overstay their visa to visit the United States can be barred from returning for 10 years — or even life, under some circumstances. But what if the system recognized that people make mistakes? Maybe someone who overstayed could come forward, pay a fine, and go home, with no future bar to entry.

“I hope the administration is going to look at this and say, ‘Aha! This is what allows us to thread the needle, to have enforcement that allows us to be proportional,’” Ramón said.

While Trump has taken rhetoric and actions against immigrants to new heights, the United States has always harbored an anti-immigrant strain. Ben Franklin hated the Germans. In 1844, mobs in Philadelphia attacked Irish homes and Roman Catholic churches. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first and only national legislation to ban immigration by a specific nationality.

By 1921 the government was setting quotas on the number of immigrants, and come the 1990s, new laws eliminated key defenses against deportation and subjected many more immigrants to detention.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, founded in 1933, for decades governed comings and goings, handling a basket of disparate duties, many of them strictly administrative. It monitored the entry of tourists and business travelers, inspected all who arrived via land, sea, and air, granted asylum, patrolled borders, and removed those who entered illegally.

That changed with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two years later the INS was disbanded, many of its parts reconfigured into three new agencies under the new Department of Homeland Security:

  1. CBP, which includes the Border Patrol, aims to stop drugs, weapons, and people from illegally entering the country.

  2. ICE, which enforces criminal and civil immigration laws.

  3. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees lawful immigration and the naturalization of new American citizens.

There’s something different about our current regime,” said immigration historian Carly Goodman, who teaches at La Salle University and is co-editor of Made by History at the Washington Post. “Its scale. Its size. Its funding. Its militarization.”

Policy shifts, she said, have turned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from an administrative-services arm into a third enforcement agency.

For instance, USCIS carries out the administration’s renewal of the “public charge” rule, which can be used to block people from getting visas or green cards by deeming them likely to need government benefits. Also, when the agency denies someone’s visa or benefit application, it may issue a Notice to Appear, the first step in deportation proceedings.

“Can things be different? Absolutely yes,” Goodman said. “Maybe this is one of those moments when we really can choose a different path. We can look back and see it doesn’t have to be this way. The response to 9/11 didn’t have to be the reorganization of the government accompanied by endless wars.”

About a million immigrants a year come to the United States. And, Miller-Wilson noted, that’s not going to change. No less than the U.S. Army predicts that climate change alone will create massive instability, driving the migration of millions of people around the globe.

“There should not be a connection between immigrants and criminals,” Miller-Wilson said. “It’s really set back the ability to talk about sensible immigration policy. … Usually you start with ‘Here’s where we can agree on: There’s lots of displacement, lots of suffering, and the government should help.’ But lots of people disagree with that. If you can’t agree on ‘the sky is blue,’ how do you have the conversation?”