At his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Donald Trump is expected to continue to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments in what will likely be his latest plea for a costly wall at the United States–Mexico border. He will endeavor to portray a state of crisis at the nation's southern border—one that opponents say does not exist.
In his address, Trump may also opt to declare a national state of emergency in a long-anticipated, controversial bid to bypass Congress and secure funding for the wall. Such a declaration would almost immediately trigger a spate of legal challenges, analysts say.
Whether or not he declares a state of emergency, what's more certain is that the president will launch into a screed on immigrants.
"This president has been nothing if not consistent in his peddling of racist lies and misinformation to further his extremist, anti-immigrant agenda, and we expect no different from his State of the Union speech," says Anu Joshi, senior director of immigrant rights policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.
"Expect to see him talk about crimes that undocumented immigrants commit," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles. Solis notes that, if past history serves, "there will be someone in the gallery that is the spouse or family member of someone killed by an immigrant, most likely law enforcement. He [Trump] will continue to paint an exclusively negative and brown narrative of immigration. Yet he'll make no mention of the recent crimes and mass shootings committed last month by white males, his largest voting bloc."
Advocates say that the State of the Union on immigration is indeed dire, but not in the way that Trump and his supporters suggest: In its second year, the administration drew immigration justice and enforcement to a grinding halt, with long-time U.S. residents facing deportation to nations still in crisis, and overwrought immigration courts under unprecedented pressure to plow through rapidly growing caseloads.
"It's just been two years of hell for immigrant communities and also for communities of color," says Nicole Regalado, campaign manager at CREDO Action, a progressive organizing group. "It's not just at the southern border; it's in our communities across the country. It's incredible the types of attacks he's inflicting not just on immigrants themselves but the immigration system."
In the past year, Pacific Standard has reported on a barrage of Trump administration policies targeting the rights of immigrants. Here are some of the ways that the administration has shaped the nation on immigration in the past year:
- Analysts complain that the immigration court system is overwrought and that the Trump administration has broken its pledge to streamline the system. At the start of his presidency, administration officials told the press that they would slash the backlog by half ahead of the 2020 presidential election. But Syracuse University researchers found that, in November, the backlog was 50 percent larger than it had been in January of 2017, when Trump took office. Amid rampant detentions and continual pushes to deport, the administration at once promised to cut the backlog and funneled an unprecedented number of immigrants into that system.
- In April, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed a quota on immigration court judges requiring that they close 700 cases a year—with a low rate of appeal—in order to receive a favorable performance review. Advocates for the judges tell Pacific Standard that the quotas have forced judges to speed through their caseloads, driving up the likelihood of challenges to their rulings. That means not only that more cases remain on the immigration courts' dockets for longer, but also that immigrants are at risk of forgoing their constitutionally guaranteed due process.
- In his second term in office, Trump's administration continued to cancel the legal immigration status for immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for decades. Among them were recipients of so-called Temporary Protected Status, a designation allowing escapees of natural and political disaster, to remain in the U.S. The Trump administration continued to cancel TPS designation for people from countries that the Department of Homeland Security had indicated, in emails obtained by the press, were not safe enough to allow the return of their expatriates. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) has invited Linda Clark, a Liberian American whose Deferred Enforced Departure designation has been terminated and who faces deportation next month, as a guest at the State of the Union address. In a statement on the matter, Omar echoed concerns that the decision to terminate these designations was premised more on the administration's views of people of color than any sort of humanitarian consideration.
- The Trump administration's policies have stoked violence at U.S.–Mexican border towns like Tijuana, advocates warn. With a flow of immigrants to the U.S. trying to seek refuge ahead of a constant barrage of anti-immigrant policies, and with a southward flow of deportees, the U.S. is funneling vulnerable people into the hands of organized crime syndicates operating in those cities, analysts say. In July, there were a record 12 homicides a day—most of which were related to cartels—in Tijuana, according to local publications.
- In June, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in an interim decision that gang and domestic violence did not amount to sufficient reasons for the U.S. to accept asylum applications on the grounds that those survivors do not comprise a persecuted group. Immigrant rights advocates have lambasted that finding, explaining that, in many of the asylum seekers' countries of origin, law enforcement further persecutes or is unable to help victims of domestic and gang violence.
- The administration maintains that some of the facts concerning the state of the union on immigration are unknowable. At a House hearing in December, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said she did not know the number of people who have died in her department's custody. This month, the Trump administration admitted that it does not know how many more children than previously thought had been separated from their parents at the border. There is no central tracking of those numbers, the government said.
- Trump actually broke several promises to his anti-immigrant base in the 35-day government shutdown that ended late last month. During the shutdown, when the judiciary could not work, some 80,000 immigrants missed their day in court, according to estimates. With trials scheduled months and sometimes years in advance, many of those immigrants will remain the country indefinitely, awaiting trial.
It remains uncertain—although entirely unlikely—that the president will raise any of these points in his speech on the state of affairs for immigrants and the nation.