Immigration: Decade in Review

Washington, DC – Closing in on the end of the decade, immigration reform has seen triumphs and victories that combated xenophobic and nativist policies, but also faced trials and tribulations that have sullied the foundational American idea of welcoming those who come to build a stronger America. Advocates and policymakers won victories such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for Dreamers and local and state policies that protect immigrants from the zealous overreach of federal enforcement authorities. At the same time, the government built a formidable and excessive deportation and detention machinery while enacting “zero tolerance” border policies that have ripped families apart, further inciting dangerous and violent rhetoric that divided a nation. In the next decade, immigration advocates will look to unite the nation and find ways to win justice and opportunity with and for immigrant communities. 

Below, America’s Voice gives our take on the most significant changes in immigration politics and policy in the 2010s: 

1) Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) 

DACA is arguably the single greatest victory for immigrants this decade. Before DACA, many Dreamers were unable to go to college because they had no way of paying for schooling without the legal ability to work. They couldn’t legally hold a job, even though they had grown up in the U.S., spoke English, and wanted to contribute. Since 2012, Dreamers have used DACA to find better jobs, earn raises, buy houses and cars, and start families. DACA did not allow them to pursue full status and citizenship, but it did give 700,000 Dreamers an unprecedented opportunity. Unfortunately, DACA is now more in danger than ever, since Trump’s 2017 attempt to end the program. Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers have been aging into the program without being able to sign up, and next year, the Supreme Court may rule against the entire policy.

2) Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) 

Announced by President Obama in November 2014, DAPA would have protected the immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents from deportation. DAPA was blocked by District Court Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas, and the Obama administration never had a chance to enact the policy. But the program would have protected as many as 4.4 million immigrants (almost half the estimated U.S. undocumented population) and given them the ability to legally work. DAPA might have really changed life for undocumented communities in the U.S., and represents the high-water mark of pro-immigrant executive actions.

3) The “Gang of 8” Bill, S. 744

In 2013, 68 Senators from both parties voted for S. 744, the “Gang of 8” immigration reform bill, which would have created a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Just a few years later, it seems inconceivable that so many Senators voted for a bill so broad and far-reaching. Business groups, corporations, faith leaders, union leaders, and advocates all supported the bill; polling showed that three-quarters of Americans supported the major planks of the bill. Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, however, never brought the bill to a vote in the House, and this decade’s best hope for immigration reform and justice for the undocumented died.

4) The Latino vote 

2012 was the year of the Latino vote after Mitt Romney lost Latinos by nearly a 3-1 margin. The Republican Party published a post-election autopsy finding that they needed to better reach out to voters of color, and this understanding helped push immigration reform forward the following year and propelled S. 744 through the Senate. Since 2012, Latino voters and voters of color have continued to be hugely influential, most recently helping Democrats to secure the House by the largest midterms margin of all time. But Republicans have stopped listening, doubling down on base voters with messages that repel everyone else.

5) Arizona’s SB 1070

SB 1070 passed in 2010 and required state law enforcement to double as immigration agents. If a police officer was reasonably suspicious that someone was undocumented, SB 1070 required the officer to question and detain that person. Though anti-immigrant ordinances had been passed in towns like Farmer’s Branch, Texas, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, SB 1070 was the broadest and strictest anti-immigrant law in the U.S. at the time it was passed. The Supreme Court eventually struck down most of SB 1070, but it still led to copycat state laws like Alabama’s HB 56 and, later, Texas’ SB 4. The modus operandi of these state laws, attrition through enforcement, has led to much grief for immigrant families, some of whom packed up and moved in the middle of the night when these laws came to town.

6) Trump’s election 

It cannot be understated how much Trump’s 2016 election changed immigration policy in the U.S. We have spent a lot of effort trying to catalog all of Trump’s many, many changes to U.S. immigration policy over the last three years. Immigration is arguably where Trump has had his greatest policy impact, partly due to the zealotry of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, and partly because the president has broad powers to unilaterally shape and change immigration policy. From legal immigration to the Muslim ban to family separations and expedited removals and much more, the U.S. immigration system looks very different today than it did just three years ago. Even if Trump is removed from office tomorrow, experts estimate that it could take years to undo all of Trump’s immigration moves.

7) Family separation 

Family separation is no doubt the most notorious of Trump’s immigration policies, having drawn condemnation from across the country and across the world. Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy, piloted in 2017 and officially announced in 2018, meant that adults coming to the U.S. border were prosecuted and their children taken elsewhere. The Trump administration separated more than 5,400 children from their parents — and when courts ordered them to reunite the families, they found that they had no mechanism for doing so. Recent reports reveal that the Administration knew that family separation would hurt children. Yet family separations continue today.

8) Temporary Protected Status (TPS) 

TPS protects immigrants already in the U.S. when a natural disaster or other major event strikes their home country and makes return conditions unsafe. TPS was established by Congress in 1990 and currently protects immigrants from ten countries (El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). Some immigrants protected by TPS have lived in the U.S. for decades, work legally, own homes, and have U.S. citizen children. The Trump Administration has generally ended TPS designations when deadlines have come up, and refused to consider designations for Venezuela or post-hurricane Bahamas. Courts have stepped in to preserve TPS for affected groups, citing the Trump Administration’s racial “animus” in announcing TPS-ending decisions. Ultimately, TPS, like DACA, requires Congressional action and legislative protection. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands may be deported.

9) Asylum / Remain in Mexico 

Remain in Mexico, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, is probably the most significant new immigration development this year — and no one is talking about it. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers, rather than being allowed to come to the U.S. border to seek asylum, are now being forced to wait for months while living in dangerous conditions in Mexico.  Human Rights First found “over 340 public reports of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP.” Only 0.1% of those subjected to MPP have actually gained asylum — and some of those who have, have been returned to Mexico anyway (rather than allowed into the U.S.). Meanwhile, horrific detention conditions for those seeking asylum have led to the deaths of at least 7 minors and 29 adults, including Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old who was left unsupervised in a Border Patrol cell for hours even though he had a high fever.

10) The Border Wall

For the record, despite what Trump says, the border wall remains unbuilt. But for something that started as a mnemonic device, the border wall has sucked up enormous amounts of national time and attention. In late 2018, Trump shut down the government for a record-breaking 35 days, withholding paychecks from government employees over Christmas, because he was demanding more money for the border wall. This year, Trump declared a national emergency so that he could divert money from military projects — including firehouses and schools — to the border wall. The House and Senate voted twice to reject Trump’s national emergency, and Trump vetoed their resolutions twice. Now, Jared Kushner plans to start seizing private land along the border, some of which has been owned by the same families for generations, in order to build a pointless and environmentally damaging wall.

11) Extremism

In the Trump era, words matter. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant ranting about migrant caravans. The August 2019 Walmart shooter in El Paso, Texas, told police officers that he was looking to kill Mexicans and left behind an anti-Hispanic manifesto. Yet Trump continues to foment anti-immigrant hate among rally-goers and spend millions of dollars on thousands of Facebook ads that stir up fears of an “invasion”. Republican candidates in 2017, 2018, and 2019 have found that anti-immigrant fear-mongering doesn’t pay as an electoral strategy. But Trump is sure to continue demonizing immigrants throughout 2020 — perhaps beyond —and his rhetoric may be putting real lives at stake.

12) State initiatives

States and localities pass pro-immigrant legislation as well, thanks to the tireless efforts of grassroots organizations and advocates. Just this week, New York began allowing drivers to obtain licenses regardless of immigration status, and New Jersey is expected to sign a similar bill. Of the fifteen states (and Washington, D.C.) that allow immigrants to drive, twelve passed their license laws in the last ten years. The last decade has also seen the passage of the California and Illinois TRUST Acts, which have made the division between local police work and immigration enforcement more clear. And, progressive local and state election results have led to the erosion of 287(g), further protecting immigrants and immigrant-friendly communities.

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