clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump reshaped the US immigration system — but it’s been ignored at the debates

Once the focus of Trump’s 2016 campaign, immigration has been treated as an afterthought this election cycle.

President Donald Trump at a ceremony for the building of a border wall with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona in June.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Not a single question at the first two debates has addressed one of the policy areas in which President Donald Trump has been most effective at bringing his vision to fruition over his first term: immigration.

Instead, the candidates have only mentioned immigration in passing. During Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris briefly nodded to Trump’s statements about Mexicans coming over the border on the campaign trail in 2016, in which he called them “rapists” and “criminals.” She also briefly mentioned the travel ban he enacted right after taking office, blocking citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and creating chaos in airports across the US before courts forced him to amend the policy, which still remains in effect.

Even Trump, who has long used the idea of building a wall on the southern border as a rallying cry among his base, largely ignored the subject in the first debate. He instead tried to shut down discussion of everything, shouting over his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Yet, in 2016, the wall was one of the defining policies of his campaign and became a symbol of the punitive approach he would later take to immigration enforcement.

For many Latinos, disproportionately affected by Trump’s immigration policy, omission of the topic is a sign of neglect. About a third of Latinos in the US are immigrants — a share that has steadily declined since 2010 — but even among those who were born in the US, many have family members and friends who fear coming into contact with immigration enforcement.

The lack of focus on immigration at the debates also serves as a reminder that, under the Obama-Biden administration, many elements of the current enforcement system were already in place and enjoyed bipartisan consensus.

Obama’s record-high levels of deportations were often criticized by activists. He also detained families together on a wide scale and tried to deport them as quickly as possible during the 2014 migrant crisis. (Though, he also pursued comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 with the aim of legalizing the population of unauthorized immigrants living in the US, and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program — which offered deportation protection to unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children.)

Biden has tried to reckon with that record in his immigration plan, acknowledging that deporting people without criminal records was a “big mistake.” But if elected, it will be a challenge for him to reverse the restrictionist immigration policies that Trump has implemented over the last four years, despite lawsuits from activists who have challenged those policies at nearly every turn, because of the scale and scope of the president's policies.

Trump built impediments in Central America, at the border, in detention centers, and in immigration courts that have made obtaining asylum nearly impossible for people fleeing violence in their home countries. And he has even gone so far as to separate more than 5,500 immigrant families.

The president vastly expanded immigration detention, rapidly returning migrants to Mexico and prosecuting every immigrant caught crossing the border without authorization. He waged a quiet and effective campaign to reduce legal immigration, using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to reject tens of thousands of visas and green cards. And he has skirted Congress to spend billions on his border wall, which he is currently racing to complete ahead of the election at a pace of two miles per day.

As Trump seeks a second term, he’s also made it clear that he hasn’t finished. He still wants to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program once and for all; drive out the millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the US and curb their political power; enact what he calls “merit-based” immigration reform; and pursue a slew of restrictive immigration regulations.

Miles Taylor, a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, recently said that one of Trump’s senior advisers once told him that a second term would center on “shock and awe” with regard to immigration. The adviser had a list of executive orders in his drawer that he had worked on with White House counsel, that were deemed “unacceptable to issue at a first presidential term because they knew they would lose voters because they would be so extreme,” Taylor said.

In a second term, Trump would face no such restrictions — and it is important his plans be discussed at any future debate.