clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump meant what he said, and his new executive orders prove it

President Trump Visits Department of Homeland Security Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Trump is now starting to make policy in earnest — and it settles the debate from the campaign about whether he should be taken “seriously” or “literally.”

The answer is both.

Trump signed two executive orders on immigration on Wednesday that collectively will make life more precarious for unauthorized immigrants already in the United States and those who are trying to cross over. And according to media reports, including drafts of four executive orders sent anonymously to Vox, there are many more to come.

Several of the forthcoming or draft executive orders represent a crackdown on immigration — legal and illegal — in the US. Another, according to the New York Times, seeks to scale back the United States’ commitment to the United Nations. One draft memo seeks to bring back torture and secret prisons. Another would start an investigation into voter fraud.

Wednesday was the day that the outlines of how Trump planned to fulfill many of his campaign promises became much clearer. He’d promised to build a wall on the southern border, and one of the executive orders he signed Wednesday directs the Department of Homeland Security to do just that. He signaled that the United States would play a smaller role in world affairs, and his executive orders would cut back on American commitments to international organizations.

Presidents generally try to keep their campaign promises, and Trump is no exception.

Trump signed two executive orders meant to crack down on unauthorized immigration

Trump’s executive orders on immigration order the Department of Homeland Security to identify and allocate funding to start building his promised wall. But that’s not the only method, or even the harshest, that Trump’s administration will implement to discouraged unauthorized immigration. The executive orders made the following policy changes:

  • Customs and Border Patrol agents are directed to either immediately deport or detain every single unauthorized immigrant they catch attempting to cross the border. In the past, some unauthorized immigrants, including asylum seekers, would be released to await a hearing, either because CBP believed they’d show up for court or asylum interviews or because they had an ankle monitor or other system to keep track of them. The only options remaining now are deport and detain — and that’s a big problem, as Vox’s Dara Lind explained, for the many asylum seekers, including women and children, who are traveling from Central American countries.
  • It’s now much easier for an unauthorized immigrant to be classified as a “criminal” and therefore made a priority for deportation. Trump has directed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials to deport unauthorized immigrants convicted of a crime (who would have been deportation targets under President Obama as well), but also anyone who has been charged with a crime, or who has committed a crime, even if they haven’t been charged. That includes driving without a license, as many unauthorized immigrants do, and illegal entry and reentry.
  • It also makes people who have committed fraud or misrepresented themselves for “an official matter” — such as, say, using a fake Social Security number — deportation targets.
  • It triples the number of agents in ICE’s enforcement and removal office.
  • It revives the Secure Communities program, which checks the names of immigrants booked into local jails against immigration databases. The Obama administration abandoned the program, which it had once bragged about, after it was clear that it led to immigrants being deported for traffic offenses or for no reason at all.
  • It calls for the publication of a weekly list of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants living in “sanctuary cities,” which limit local cooperation with the federal government on immigration issues.
  • It gives the attorney general permission to punish jurisdictions getting federal grants that are interfering with law enforcement, which is as close as the president can reasonably get to requiring cities and towns to enforce federal immigration law.

In other words, unauthorized immigrants in the US will now have a much greater threat of deportation hanging over them. That wasn’t the only gesture Trump made toward fulfilling his tough rhetoric on immigration on the campaign trail. Julie Kirchner, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to sharply limit immigration into the United States, is now working as an adviser to the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, according to Politico.

There are more executive orders on immigration to come

The first days of the Trump White House have been marked by an unusual number of leaks for an administration that, under more normal circumstances, would still be in its honeymoon period in Washington. At first, most of those leaks were more about Trump’s personality than his policies. But now they’ve resulted in several draft executive orders circulating among various media outlets.

Four of those executive orders (as well as the two signed Wednesday) were given to Vox. Taken together, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote, they represent “one of the harshest crackdowns on immigrants — both those here and those who want to come here — in memory.”

These executive orders haven’t been signed yet, so the situation could still change.

  • One executive order would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the program that gives DREAMers, unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children, the ability to work and live in the United States. Work permits, which are valid for two years, would remain valid but eventually expire.
  • Entry into the United States would be suspended for people from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq. Trump didn’t pull this list out of nowhere; those seven countries were already subject to a law limiting travel to the US for citizens of countries who typically don’t need a visa to come here at all (such as France or Germany) but who had previously visited the countries on the list.
  • All admissions of Syrian refugees would be suspended until Trump decides to start allowing them entry again.
  • All refugee admissions would be suspended for 120 days while the secretary of state reviews refugee application procedures. (There’s an exception for “religious minorities” facing persecution due to their beliefs, and those claims will be given priority.)
  • The executive orders also seek to restrict legal immigration, including creating “site visits” by DHS for employers with employees on L-1 visas, a program that will later be expanded to all employment-based visas.
  • DHS will be required to “improve monitoring of foreign students.”
  • The US would be forbidden to admit immigrants who are likely to end up requiring help from the United States’ social safety net — including not just cash welfare, as is already the case, but Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Anyone on a visa who used any of these benefits would be deported, and those who sponsored them would have to pay the US government.

The United States could take a step toward torturing people again

Another leaked memo — first reported by the New York Times, obtained in full by the Washington Post, and which White House communication director Sean Spicer disavows — would allow the United States to take steps toward bringing back “black site” secret prisons and banned interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.

Trump, in an interview with ABC’s David Muir, said the ultimate decision could rest with his Cabinet leaders. “I will rely on [CIA Director Mike] Pompeo and [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and my group,” he said. “And if they don’t want to do, that’s fine. If they do wanna do, then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally.”

The United States would cut back on its commitment to international institutions

Two other draft executive orders, obtained by Max Fisher of the New York Times, call for ending funding to international groups, including United Nations agencies, if they:

  • Give full membership to the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian Liberation Organization
  • Support programs that fund abortions
  • Support programs that circumvent sanctions against Iran or North Korea

After that, any remaining funding for international groups would also be cut 40 percent, the Times reported. The targets are likely to include the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Population Fund. (The US quit funding UNESCO, which counts the Palestinian Authority as a member, in 2011.)

Another executive order would call for a review on current and pending treaties involving the United States and at least two other nations, excluding those related to security, extradition, or international trade. (The Times says two possibilities mentioned are the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — the US has the distinction of being the only country not to ratify that treaty — and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The US hasn’t ratified that treaty either.)

Watch: The racist history of US immigration policy

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.