10 US immigration issues to watch in 2020

(Jan. 3, 2020) Last year, the Trump administration rolled out several policies that restricted access to asylum as well as employment-based and family-based immigration pathways. With a presidential election on the horizon, 2020 could bring even more restrictions as US President Donald Trump makes a final push to fulfill his agenda before voters head to the ballot box. 

Here are 10 immigration issues we’re watching this year, below. 

1. How will immigration play out on the campaign trail? 

Trump’s focus on immigration enforcement has touched every aspect of the US immigration system. As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, the candidates will need to stake out their positions on everything from the border wall and asylum policy to the travel ban and employment-based immigration. They will also need to decide how far they’ll go in crafting alternatives to Trump’s policies. 

“It’s easy for all these candidates to express opposition to what this president is doing,” said Anil Kalhan, an immigration law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “But in their limited comments on immigration so far, I have seen the candidates clustered in two groups: There are those who seem to be saying that it is enough to go back to the pre-Trump years, and those who seem to be saying we need a more fundamental rethink in the approaches to immigration developed over the past 25-30 years.” 

Former Vice President Joe Biden falls closer to the first camp: He has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s toughest anti-immigration policies. On the more progressive end of the spectrum are Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are calling for the decriminalization of border crossing and a reshaping of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

2. Is this the end of asylum at the southern US border? 

Last year, the Trump administration waged an attack on the asylum system, rolling out a series of policies that effectively cut off access to asylum at the southern US border. “It’s such a long process for people to seek asylum, and they’re trying to tighten it at every step,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC. The Trump administration’s most effective — and controversial — policy has been “Remain in Mexico,” officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. It has forced at least 50,000, mostly Central American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico, often in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, while their immigration cases wind their way through US courts.

Separately, the Trump administration has implemented a ban on asylum applications from migrants who transited through another country en route to the US. It has also started sending migrants back to Central America under a series of deals it signed with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the very region from which most asylum-seekers to the US are fleeing. 

All of these policies are before the courts, although they have been allowed to go into effect in the meantime. Some issues to watch in 2020: Will Mexico continue to allow people to wait along the Mexico side of the US-Mexico border under MPP? Will more asylum-seekers give up and return to their home countries? How many asylum-seekers will be returned to Central America through agreements with the United States — and is it reasonable to expect any of them will apply for asylum there instead? What other measures will the Trump administration pursue to cut off asylum?Related: How Trump’s bilateral deals with Central America undermine the US asylum system

3.  Will the “Remain in Mexico” policy (MPP) last?

Mexico has cooperated with the US on MPP. Reports of violence against migrants in Mexico is well-documented, with incidents  ranging from robbery and kidnapping to rape. US officials have downplayed reports of violence against migrants and defend the program as a “game changer” for addressing overcrowded holding facilities on the US side of the border. Further, only 117 people have been granted asylum or some other form of relief under the program.The MPP program is currently under review by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in California. If the court rules against the program, the US government can be expected to appeal. The case could reach the Supreme Court, while pressure from immigration advocates to halt MPP will continue.

“The amount of suffering that this policy has caused is just terrifying,” said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, which is suing the Trump administration over MPP. “The people who have been returned include families with young kids and returned to conditions that are not only incredibly dangerous in terms of the cartels that prey on them.”

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Tania Karas and Monica Campbell