Immigration enforcement has undeniably changed under President Trump’s young administration. And while the end-of-fiscal-year numbers won’t be available for months, we can still predict that the numbers of illegal border-crossers will be down and ICE arrests will be up, for one reason – mindset.
Rhetoric, messaging and setting priorities are all important first steps in implementing any kind of personal, professional or federal improvements. Individuals, for example, are unlikely to reach a personal fitness goal if they wake up every morning and talk themselves out of what they promised to do the night before. A solid commitment must take place even before the diet changes, or the exercise begins. Likewise, change is unlikely to occur within the federal government unless someone proclaims a new message, sets a new vision and takes leadership. Both former President Obama and President Trump took the initiative in changing the narrative regarding immigration.
Under former president Obama’s administration, an open-borders narrative was placed on full display with the DHS implementation of the “Morton and Johnson Memos.” The policy set forth three priorities in descending order for deporting illegal aliens:
- “Threats to national security, border security, and public safety.” This included convicted gang members, terrorists, non-immigration related felonies and those apprehended attempting to unlawfully enter the country.
- “Misdemeanors and immigration violators.” This priority included those convicted of multiple misdemeanors or systemic visa violations, and those convicted of significant misdemeanor crimes such as drug trafficking, domestic violence and/or DUI.
- “Other immigration violators.” Or, essentially, those with a final order of removal issued after January 1, 2014.
In other words, removing perpetrators of domestic violence and drug trafficking crimes should become a second-rate priority. In addition, the Obama administration barely pursued general immigration violators, with only 65,000 removed in FY 2016, compared to 224,000 in FY 2011, shortly before the Morton Memos took effect. This policy incentivized illegal migration because penalties for unlawful presence were essentially non-existent. It also punished the men and women of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for doing their jobs.
During the first six months of his administration, President Trump has taken a dramatically different approach to immigration policy. Under his leadership, the Department of Homeland Security immediately put all criminal illegal aliens on notice that nobody in the U.S. illegally was above the law, that enforcement was coming, and began removing civil immigration violators as well.
Mainstream media outlets and open border advocates immediately decried the uptick in enforcement efforts because they often included those without “serious” felony convictions. However, in an August 3 press release, ICE accurately reminded the media that everyone illegally present in the United States is subject to removal – not just those with an egregious criminal record. “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.” President Trump’s philosophy on immigration has emboldened the agencies under his direction to stand up against a hostile mainstream media.
The result of this changed narrative is that immigration officials can now enforce existing laws without fear of reprisal. This is how things should work. If an administration doesn’t like a particular law, it can attempt to have it amended by Congress. However, undermining and ignoring established law should never be considered an acceptable message or course of action. That’s exactly what the Obama administration did, and what the Trump administration is in the process of undoing.
Spencer Raley is a research associate at Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).