Processing delays plagued the Trump administration. Average case processing times increased by more than 91% since 2014. Photo via Shutterstock.

‘Weaponizing a machine’: Experts say Trump-era immigration changes could take years to dismantle

By Rebecca Holland and Ashley Capoot

For a young mother living in San Diego, the trip back to her native Mexico was supposed to be short: She needed only to complete a brief interview to obtain her green card in the United States.

For another immigrant, a 17-year-old from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, living in Michigan, the process to stay in the United States meant filling out an asylum application.

For many years, the path into the U.S. was more predictable. 

But the young mother was kept from returning home because of a federal regulation, enacted in 2019, that denied immigrants entry into the U.S. based on their potential financial burden to taxpayers, according to the woman’s lawyer. The 17-year-old was rejected for leaving blank spaces on his asylum application instead of writing: “N/A.”

Both became entangled in a web of sweeping changes introduced by the Trump administration that immigration groups say dramatically slowed the immigration process in the United States — or, for tens of thousands of immigrants, stopped it in its tracks.

Over four years, the Trump administration enacted more than 1,000 immigration policies across federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), according to the Immigration Policy Tracking Project.

Trump officials said the changes were meant to overhaul an immigration system that the administration believed was beset by lax enforcement and had allowed millions of undocumented immigrants into the United States. 

Trump advisor Stephen Miller told Reuters last year that the administration intentionally created overlapping policies.

“In some distant, long-off future time when a Democrat is president, as we all have seen firsthand, it is a difficult, complex and time-consuming thing to remove a regulation or a longstanding memorandum,” Miller said in the interview.

Now, nearly a year into Biden’s presidency, immigration groups and legal experts say it could take months or years to sort through the rules that have separated families, blocked asylum-seekers and banned refugees from some of the most unstable countries in the world.

The Trump administration “took action in all these different areas, and in all of them to try to disrupt, and I would say, destroy, as much as possible the functioning of the immigration system without adopting any legislation,” Lucas Guttentag, a professor at Stanford and Yale universities who led the tracking project. Guttentag recently joined the Department of Justice to help advise the Biden administration on immigration policy.

San Diego-based immigration attorney Michelle Celleri said she spent months trying to bring the young mother from San Diego back into the United States, where her husband — a U.S. citizen — was waiting. The woman had traveled to Mexico with her newborn, intending to return within days.

The 2019 policy enacted by the Trump administration, however, allowed for immigrants to be denied visas or lawful permanent residency if they appeared unable to financially support themselves. Celleri said the young mother was denied because her family’s income was considered insufficient. 

“I did everything I could to appeal it,” Celleri said. “They wouldn’t look at anything else. No considerations.”

A lawyer with the firm that handled the 17-year-old immigrant’s case said she is still frustrated by the rejection of the young man’s entry into the United States because of blank spaces left on his asylum application. The form had space for four siblings. He listed two.

Under a Trump policy change in 2019, some immigration applications could be denied if spaces were not filled by either a response or “N/A.” 

“A child will not get the due process he is entitled to because of this absurd process,” said Susan Reed, a managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which handled the case. 

Hours after taking office, Biden struck down some of the Trump administration’s most contentious immigration policies, including the so-called “Muslim ban” that turned away people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But many Trump-era changes still stand.

No agency was more affected than U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which grants visas and processes immigration applications. Under Trump, the agency saw 492 changes in four years through executive orders, rule changes and other non-legislative measures, according to the Tracking Project. 

While executive orders can be rescinded, regulation cannot be repealed until a new regulation is written in its place, an often-lengthy process. The policy changes affected immigrants far more than Trump’s oft-contentious rhetoric did, Reed said.

“As much as Trump’s immigration policy was really populist and really ‘build the wall, rah rah,’ the biggest impact — it was very much about weaponizing a machine,” she said.

John Zadrozny, brought in under Trump as chief of staff at USCIS, defended the number of changes, calling them “pretty average,” including changes to screening and vetting asylum claims. 

“When you allow a lot of fraudulent asylum claims to go through the system, people assume all claims are bad or not sincere,” he said in an interview. “A lot of people are persecuted abroad, and by cutting the fraudulent cases, we are able to help those people.”

Of hundreds of new policies enacted at USCIS, the “Public Charge Final Rule,” which would deny entry to immigrants who had used public benefits such as food stamps, public housing or Medicaid for more than a year, created particularly steep hurdles for applicants, immigration attorneys say.

“It had an enormous chilling effect that kept people from accessing government services for public health that are actually created to try to preserve public health — against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic no less,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director with the nonprofit American Immigration Council. 

Celleri, the San Diego attorney, said because the policy was introduced so quickly, some immigrants who once traveled freely in and out of the country found themselves unable to return.

“Families were separated,” Celleri said. “There was nothing anyone could have done to foresee that happening.”

The rule on blank spaces on applications also created challenges. If applicants did not have a middle name, for example, their applications risked rejection if they failed to write “N/A” in the corresponding space, Loweree said. 

“The blank space policy was probably one of the most thinly veiled attempts to find any way of possibly disqualifying individuals from accessing the immigration system,” he said.

The Biden administration rescinded the so-called public charge rule in March and the blank space rule one month later.

Immigration advocates say they hope the Biden administration will also tackle a backlog of applications at the agency. As Trump’s policy changes kicked in, the backlog soared by more than 100% from 2016 to 2017, the American Immigration Lawyers Association found

The group also found the average case processing time had grown by more than 91% since fiscal year 2014.

“Immigrant visas that aren’t used in the year they’re allocated go away,” Loweree said. “We’re just wasting visas.”

USCIS declined to comment.

House Democrats last month passed Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which pledged an historic overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. Loweree said the government needs to move quickly.

“What we’ve seen now is the Biden administration has done a whole lot on immigration, but they haven’t removed enough of those bureaucratic barriers for the system to start functioning in a more meaningful way just yet,” he said. 

Madison Muller contributed to this report.

Debbie Cenziper

Debbie Cenziper is an associate professor and the director of investigative reporting at Medill. She also oversees the Medill Investigative Lab. Besides teaching, Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and nonfiction author who writes for The Washington Post. She spent three years at The George Washington University before joining the faculty of Medill.

Over the years, Cenziper’s investigative stories have exposed wrongdoing, prompted Congressional hearings and led to changes in federal and local laws. In her classes at Medill, Cenziper and her students focus on social justice investigative reporting.

Cenziper has won dozens of awards in American print journalism, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for reporting about human rights and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard University. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 at The Miami Herald for a series of stories about corrupt affordable housing developers who were stealing from the poor. A year before that, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for stories about dangerous breakdowns in the nation’s hurricane-tracking system.

Cenziper is a frequent speaker at universities, writing conferences and book events. Her first book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” (William Morrow, 2016) was named one of the most notable books of the year by The Washington Post. Her second book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” was released by Hachette Books in November 2019.

Cenziper is based on Medill’s Washington, D.C. campus, working with undergraduate and graduate students on investigative stories.