'The Toughest Year': U.S. Immigration Changes Dominated 2018
Children torn from their parents, refugees turned away, tear gas fired on asylum-seekers, and a president who says he's making good on promises to protect the nation's borders. In a breathless 2018, they were just a handful of headlines on immigration, one of the year's most dominant issues.
Combined with a relentless stream of administrative memos and changes in regulation and enforcement, it represented a government bombardment on virtually every type of immigration — a bold follow-up to the opening salvo of President Donald Trump's first year in office.
For those who champion Trump and believe that cracking down on immigration translates to better lives for Americans, it has been a year of fulfillment of campaign promises. For those who've watched in horror, it harkened back to other points in the country's history, when fear of new arrivals led the U.S. to refuse entry to various groups and when open discrimination of certain ethnicities prevailed.
"This is our generation's sort of existential moment," said Frank Sharry, head of pro-immigration group America's Voice. "Are we going to continue to be a nation that practices 'e pluribus unum' and welcomes people from around the world to make this country better? Or are we going to shut the door?"
Throughout 2018, the answer has largely been the latter.
Even as roundups and deportations persist in targeting those who enter the U.S. illegally, the Trump administration has pushed beyond that to redefine what legal immigration looks like, too. It has slowed down or altogether halted many seeking to come to the country for a job offer or through their relationship to a citizen, and narrowed the chances of finding a home here as a refugee or asylum seeker. Jarring visuals of children in detention centers and other enforcement actions have dissuaded some from seeking to come here at all.
"There has been this constant chip, chip, chipping away at the legal immigration system using every tool of the executive branch," said Doug Rand, who worked in the Obama administration before helping found Boundless Immigration, which helps people navigate the immigration system.
The year neared its close with the administration saying those seeking asylum would be forced to wait in Mexico, a major shift that immediately spurred questions of legality from opponents. Meantime, the possibility of a government shutdown loomed as Trump and Democrats once again butted heads over funding to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
Even without it, though, the policies he's pursued have effectively put up a virtual wall.
"That is far more effective than a border wall ever would be," said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Even top-tier computer programmers, architects, engineers and other professionals with job offers in the U.S. saw their applications for H1-B visas under much more scrutiny; a means of expediting processing of those visas was ended under Trump, and bids for work authorization have been met by what employers and immigration attorneys say seem like endless requests for evidence to prove seemingly straightforward facts.
Still, the odds of those professionals eventually gaining clearance to enter the U.S. are better than for many others.
Trump's so-called "travel ban," the first iteration of which was unveiled in the president's first week in office, was upheld in June by the U.S. Supreme Court, stopping most visas for residents of mostly Muslim Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as North Korea and Venezuela. Though the policy allows for waivers, initial data showed few such applications were actually approved, effectively shutting the door to most from those nations.
It's had very real consequences for people like Soolmaz Dadgari, an Iranian who came to the U.S. in 2017 so her 4-year-old daughter, Arina, could take part in an experimental study to treat a rare genetic disorder. Dadgari's husband has been unable to get a visa to join them, and sanctions make it hard for him to send money. She alone cares for a child who can't walk or talk and requires 24-hour help, as well as another 11-year-old daughter.
Dadgari has considered returning home but knows she needs to remain for her daughter's treatment. Still, the situation has affected the way she views the U.S., which she had always regarded as the best place in the world.
"I have no hope," she said.
Even as wars, persecution and famine have continued around the world, the U.S. capped refugee admissions at 45,000 for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the lowest ceiling since the State Department began tracking the figure in 1980. Far fewer were actually admitted in that time frame: about 21,000 refugees. The number is likely to fall further, with the cap for the current fiscal year set at 30,000.
Meantime, tens of thousands fleeing violence in Central America sought asylum in the U.S. this year. The Trump administration responded by narrowing who is eligible, declaring that neither those escaping gang violence or domestic abuse nor those who cross the border illegally qualify. Both changes have been blocked by federal courts.
Some seeking refuge in the U.S. are stuck in untenable positions.
Ivis Muñoz, 26, decided to join a caravan leaving Honduras in mid-October. A gang member had shot him in the thigh and threatened to kill him. Muñoz planned to seek asylum in the U.S. but learned along his journey that he was unlikely to be accepted.
His first night in Tijuana, Mexico, he slept on the beach until rocks rained down on him and other migrants and a man shouted in the darkness: "Go back to your country!" Now he's a few hours east in Mexicali, his aching leg full of bullet fragments, overwhelmed and scared by his reality.
"I don't know what to do," said Munoz, a coffee farmer from the Honduran town of Atima. "I want to go to the United States, though I'm scared they'll send me back. I'm afraid to be in Honduras, but I don't feel safe here either."
At every turn, there were policy changes. One proposed rule would restrict visas or legal permanent residence for those receiving certain government benefits for low-income people, such as food stamps. Hundreds of immigrant enlistees in the Army were discharged or had their contracts cancelled, though some were later reinstated. Even some U.S. citizens were targeted by a "denaturalization task force" looking for naturalized Americans with past infractions.
More than any other shifts in policy, the Trump administration's move to separate apprehended migrant children from their parents shook people around the world. Though Trump eventually ended widespread use of the practice, the scars remain for those affected.
Evelin Roxana Meyer of La Union, Honduras, thought 2018 would be the year things turned around for her family. They've struggled to pay off a loan for the grocery store they run out of their home, so her husband, Douglas, and son, Eduardo, set off for the United States in hopes of finding work. Instead, the two were picked up by Border Patrol agents and separated.
The father was deported, but it took weeks before the parents knew where Eduardo was taken. He spent four months in detention, turning 12 alone at a facility in Brownsville, Texas. The once-affectionate boy returned home angry in September. He rarely goes out, spending most of his time in his room watching TV. He's refused to go to school and will have to repeat the sixth grade. He talks back to his parents and hits his little sister, whom he used to be close to. The family doesn't know what to do to help him.
"This was the toughest year of all," said 38-year-old Meyer.
Polling finds a big majority of Americans still view the country's openness to immigrants as essential to the nation's identity. But the profound shift in government policies on the subject threatens that idea of the U.S. as a welcoming land of opportunity for all.
Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, sees Trump's immigration overhaul as the continuation of a tug-of-war that's played out since the nation's founding, between what many see as bedrock American ideals and a pattern of nevertheless being hostile to newcomers.
"The country, unfortunately, has had an incongruence with the myth of America versus the reality of America," said Greer, who authored "Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream." ''Trump's really fine with blowing up the myth."
Sharry thinks the country's reputation suffers when its leaders close the doors to others: "They've put a million people on the road to deportation. They've ripped thousands of kids from their parents. They've gutted refugee protection at our border. They're building and expanding detention centers. They're trying to scare low-income immigrants from using health and other services. They've taken aim at legal immigration. They've slashed refugee admissions. That's a pretty relentless assault on a core principal of the American experiment."
Others see it far differently.
Neil Gouveia came to the U.S. from Guyana as a 7-year-old. His family waited years to earn visas, then waited again to become citizens. His parents made the difficult choice to leave behind his 9-year-old sister, who had cerebral palsy and wasn't granted a visa.
Gouveia considered himself a typical "liberal New Yorker" until 2016, when he was drawn to Trump for what he believed was his strength on national security. Gouveia is gay and said the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, particularly shook him.
He wasn't offended when Trump referred to parts of the world as "shithole countries," and doesn't see anything inherently wrong in separating immigrant children from the adults they arrive with. He thinks, ultimately, it will all lead to greater dialogue and better policies. And he still believes America stands as a beacon for much of the world.
"At the end of the day, people will say what they want to say about America, but there's hardly anyone who still wouldn't want to come here," said Gouveia, 39, a collegiate fundraiser. "They still know it's like winning the lottery."
Daniel Stein heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports restrictive immigration measures. He agrees the year's immigration imagery has had "a huge political impact on the psyche of the nation," but argues it has moved more people to his side of the debate. And to those who see the year as an extended assault on a cornerstone American value, he's unmoved.
"They have a vivid imagination," Stein said. "We have one of the world's most generous immigration programs."
That's little comfort to Buena Ventura Martin Godinez, a 29-year-old mother of two who carried her 9-month-old son across the border in May, fleeing threats from violent gangsters in her hometown of San Juan Atitan, Guatemala. She was caught in Arizona and held for a week at a detention center with her baby. When her husband followed two weeks later with their 7-year-old daughter, they weren't so lucky.
The girl was sent to a facility in Michigan and kept there for six weeks; the father went to an Atlanta jail, where he still awaits deportation. Her family fractured, Godinez now regrets the day she ever headed to the U.S.
"I came looking for a better life ... and everything went wrong," she said from the five-room house in Homestead, Florida, that she and her two children share with nine others. "I thought that it was true that it is a country that gives opportunities. But it is not."
Godinez notices changes in her children. Her daughter, always so sweet and obedient, cries incessantly and struggles in school. Her son keeps falling ill, his temperament now trademarked by screaming, crying and sighing.
"This is the worst year I ever had," she said.