In-Depth

Brick by Brick, The Trump Administration Builds A Legal Wall

Without Congressional support for the wall or an immigration overhaul, the Trump administration’s hands are somewhat tied in how they limit immigration. That hasn’t stopped them from trying.

In Houston, thousands of protesters march against anti-immigrant policies, including family separation.

One of Donald Trump’s trademark rallying cries is about building the wall. Finding money to construct a massive 2,000-mile wall across the Southwest border with Mexico has proved difficult. 

But even though Congress hasn’t approved the wall Trump wants, his administration has been slowly, brick by brick, building a ‘legal wall’.

This ‘wall’ attempts to limit immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from either coming or staying here legally.

“They’ve done a lot of things administratively like reducing the refugee ceiling, making the asylum process tougher, slowing down legal immigration to some extent,” said Randy Capps, a researcher with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank 

The bricks include the move to rescind the DACA program, which protects 36,000 “Dreamers” in greater Houston from deportation.

Though DACA isn’t gone completely, the future of the program is murky. Courts have ordered the program continue, processing renewals, but no new applications are being accepted. 

Another brick is rolling back temporary protected status (TPS) for Hondurans and Salvadorans, a population estimated at 21,000 people in greater Houston.

When their protections expire in the next couple years, many will be forced either to stay without permission or go back to countries they haven’t lived in for decades.

“Their roots are here, they’re late in their careers. They’ll have a lot of trouble adjusting if they lose their work permits,” said Capps.

“They’re not young and can just pick up and go into another field easily. And some of them are nearing retirement and may lose access to retirement benefits if they lose their status,” he said. 

Another potential brick in this legal wall is a rule being drafted that will impact family migration.

It would discourage immigration officers from granting visas and green cards to people likely to use public benefits.

The policy would also greatly expand (from 3 percent to 47 percent) the share of legal immigrants that would be deemed a “public charge” based on their use, or their dependent’s use, of public benefits.

Immigration courts and offices are also facing small, yet significant changes.

A massive 700,000 case backlog in immigration courts means people wait around for up to five years before a judge will hear their case.

There’s a lot of debate around how to best deal with all that backlog. 

Some lawyers say many of the administration’s actions are hurting immigrants under the guise of making courts more efficient.

“The Attorney General is kind of trying to find ways to push the pressure points on immigration to make it easier to deport people without having to change laws through legislation or through public notice and comment rule-making,” according to Andrea Guttin, Legal Director for the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided migrants who say they are victims of gang or domestic violence shouldn’t be given asylum.

This photo shows the outside of the Detained Courts at the Houston Service Processing Center.

Sessions is also setting case quotas that push immigration judges to work through a certain number of cases each year.

Retired immigration judge William Zimmer told News 88.7 earlier this year that moves like that are eroding the judicial independence of immigration courts, which are controlled by the executive branch.

“You can’t tell a court you only have so much time because time is important to procedure, to due process. You just can’t have a time constraint on when to finish a case. It’s just not good for independent decision making,” said Zimmer. 

Brick by brick, these moves by the administration are making life more uncertain for the 1.6 million immigrants who already call Houston home.

However, Capps said that, although these efforts will have a very real impact, the big picture is that, without Congress, the administration can only do so much.

“The total number of immigrants in the country went up by 2 percent during the first year of the Trump administration,” said Capps, “and it went up 3 percent in Houston, so I would say that the economy is trumping Trump.”

The booming U.S. economy means there’s still incentive to come and stay in cities like Houston.

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