clock menu more-arrow no yes

Trump’s “day one” on immigration: soft talk and no action

The president is off to a curiously slow start on his signature issue.

President Donald Trump Signs Executive Orders Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration is continuing the Obama administration’s immigration policy — for now.

Donald Trump rode to the presidency on calls to build a wall (and make Mexico pay for it) and a promise to expand deportations. His transition team’s plan promised to implement “extreme vetting” of immigrants, and halt immigration from certain countries, on “day one.”

None of that has happened on “day one.” Trump’s first two rounds of executive actions — which have covered health care, abortion, trade, and federal hiring and regulations — haven’t addressed immigration at all. There doesn’t appear to be much clarity about exactly what the administration is planning to sign later this week.

And when it comes to talking about unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States, the Trump administration, all of a sudden, sounds a whole lot like the Obama administration.

This isn’t a flip-flop; it’s just a slow start. The Trump administration has been clear that it plans to take action on immigration, and it’s a near certainty that some executive actions will happen this week. But it’s still notable that the president’s No. 1 campaign issue hasn’t been on his day-one agenda — and indicates his White House might be running into some unexpected difficulty.

The administration is softening its immigration rhetoric — and not yet taking any action to change Obama’s policies

Asked about rumors that President Trump will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the Obama-era program that’s given protection from deportation and work permits to about 750,000 unauthorized immigrants — White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump “has been clear that we need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in the country illegally with a criminal record and/or pose a threat” to Americans.

That’s exactly the policy the Obama administration spent several years trying to impose on immigration agents in the field — over the vocal objections (and sustained resistance) of those field agents. Trump won the support of the unions representing immigration agents by promising they’d no longer be restricted in doing their jobs.

The Trump administration could have issued executive actions rescinding the Obama-era memos that directed immigration agents on which unauthorized immigrants shouldn’t be “priorities” for deportation. (The House Freedom Caucus has recommended it do just that.) It hasn’t yet. Obama’s directions are still in place, and Trump’s press secretary is now endorsing something very much like them.

On the DACA program itself — despite persistent rumors that Trump is acting imminently to end the program — at least some members of the Trump administration appear content to let DACA remain in place for now. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, asked about an executive order on Fox News Sunday, said the administration was “going to work with House and Senate leadership as well to get a long-term solution.” Meanwhile, the federal government has continued to process applications for the program.

The president himself, meanwhile, “seemed to soften his tone on deportation” to prioritize building a US/Mexico border wall in an interview last week with Axios. “He said he can't imagine deporting fewer illegal immigrants than President Obama did in 2016,” Axios wrote Monday, but that’s an absurdly low bar compared with Trump’s previous promises: Obama deported fewer than 250,000 people in 2016, while Trump has promised to deport 2 or 3 million as his “first priority.”

To be sure, these are politically sensitive issues. Undoing DACA, in particular, would provoke a (somewhat) bipartisan fight between the administration and Congress. And any change that expands vulnerability to deportation is going to hurt long-resident immigrants, parents of US citizens, and people who haven’t committed any crimes — because those are exactly the people Obama’s policies are trying to protect.

It makes sense that this isn’t a fight a White House would want to pick in its first week. But that’s the sort of political caution the Trump operation has resolutely refused to exercise — the caution that defined the Republican attitude on immigration before Trump, and that he won the primary by exploding.

The administration hasn’t yet committed its priorities to policy

It’s not just sensitive issues of deporting current unauthorized immigrants. The Trump administration has promised consistently to go after “sanctuary cities” by restricting federal funding — but it hasn’t been among his first rounds of executive orders.

Nor have the administration-hinted executive orders to impose “extreme vetting,” or temporarily suspend immigration entirely from certain countries.

Nor has any executive order dealing with “the wall.” Rumors last week indicated that Trump would sign an order directing the Department of Homeland Security to start building a wall on the US/Mexico border. Asked about “the wall” Monday, in fact, Spicer said that Trump was “doing everything he can to encourage agencies and Congress” to move forward, but didn’t mention any executive order.

And it didn’t even appear on the list of executive orders Trump is planning to sign this week, according to Axios (while a proposal to expand E-Verify, something that Trump hasn’t mentioned at any point, did appear on the list of potential executive orders).

It’s extremely likely that Trump will sign executive orders dealing with at least some of these issues at some point this week. But it’s striking that no matter whether you consider “day one” of the Trump administration to be Friday or Monday, there have been no day-one executive orders on immigration from a president who came to office on the promise to save America from the immigrant threat.

Maybe the administration is taking longer than usual to nail down the policy — there are a lot of details that need to be worked out, for example, in an executive order restricting federal grants to “sanctuary cities.” Maybe there’s internal debate over the politics, with establishment Republicans urging the administration not to get too aggressive with unauthorized immigrants just yet. But either way, it certainly appears that the administration has encountered some sort of difficulty that it hadn’t anticipated when it made those grand promises to fix American immigration policy on day one.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.