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Impeaching America’s immigration values

New steps by the Trump administration will fundamentally change our immigration system

Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

In recent months — as the country has been transfixed on the high-stakes drama of the impeachment inquiry — the very fabric of our nation has become altered. Not because of new witness testimony or details pertaining to Ukraine, but because of dramatic new steps the Trump administration has taken to fundamentally change our immigration system.

These changes will impact America’s innovation economy. This is true for cities like Boston, where over a quarter of the residents are foreign born and, according to The Boston Foundation, nearly all the region’s growth since 1990 has been driven by increases in nonwhite immigrants; rural communities that depend on migrant labor to keep their economies humming; and asylum seekers hoping to find a safe and secure future. But its greatest impact will be on America’s moral standing on the world stage.


Reuters recently reported that the Trump administration has quietly amended US asylum rules, permitting the government to send asylum seekers to countries with which we’ve struck bilateral agreements — even if the asylum seeker didn’t first pass through those countries. In other words: The new rule would allow the Department of Homeland Security to send individuals seeking protection to places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which all rank among the top 10 countries with the highest homicide rates in the world. To put a finer point on this, those seeking protection in the United States because they fear persecution from their government based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group would be sent to some of the most dangerous places in the world.

Last month, President Trump issued a proclamation requiring legal immigrants to prove they have the means to obtain health coverage before they receive a visa. Specifically, the proclamation states that immigrants have to demonstrate either that they can afford to pay for medical bills or that they will enroll in health insurance within a month of entering the United States. This is no small thing: Should it survive court challenges, the move could cut legal immigration by a staggering 65 percent, according to Vox.


In addition, the Trump administration plans to increase citizen application fees by at least 60 percent, and to start charging asylum seekers for applications and work permits. And in September, the administration drastically cut the refugee cap to 18,000 from its previous limit of 30,000. This represents a historic low for the United States at a moment when 25.9 million refugees worldwide are fleeing war and persecution. This is misguided not only because it is mean-spirited, but because preventing refugees from entering our country means less entrepreneurship, less innovation, and fewer workers for growing American businesses. Refugees earned more than $77 billion in income and paid more than $20 billion in taxes in 2015, per a New American Economy report.

America should be a special place where freedom and equality move from dream to cherished reality — like in the Boston metropolitan area, where, in 2015, immigrants accounted for 21 percent of business owners.

To go further, the Trump administration effectively outsourced to state and local governments the ability to crack down on immigration, by forcing states and cities to opt in to refugee resettlement. That means local politicians with ulterior motives — or who just aren’t paying close attention — can make it even harder for refugees to go through the process.

Then there’s the “public charge” rule. The rule “is simply a new agency policy of exclusion in search of a justification,” as Judge George Daniels made clear in his ruling, halting its domestic implementation. Yet it is much more: The rule would make it harder for legal immigrants to enter the United States while scaring immigrant families — including those with children who are US citizens — from receiving assistance they need, such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. It’s already happening: Senior citizens are underutilizing public benefits in anticipation of the rule taking effect.


The flurry of immigration news during the Trump impeachment process winding its way through Congress, and throughout the past three years, makes it hard to focus on the more bureaucratic policy changes being implemented. But these changes are challenging the notion that America welcomes newcomers who can reach their fullest potential as Americans.

These rules are scaring off bright new minds from enrolling in our country’s prestigious universities and staying to build iconic new companies. According to Forbes, “new enrollment of international students at US universities declined by more than 10 percent. . . . At the same time, the enrollment of international students in other countries, particularly Australia and Canada, has skyrocketed.”

Not only do these changes close America’s door to immigrants and refugees who would otherwise become much needed workers and future entrepreneurs, they represent a departure from the values and ideals that have long defined this country.

America should be a special place where freedom and equality move from dream to cherished reality — like in the Boston metropolitan area, where, in 2015, immigrants accounted for 21 percent of business owners. Immigrants embody this dream, arriving today much like our own ancestors arrived: often with little more than prayers, hope, and determination. We have been a land of opportunity that enables immigrants to give back to the nation, protect Americans and American values, and, ultimately, become American citizens themselves. This opportunity benefits all of us.


When America turns its back, we close the door on that opportunity. We give license to other countries to turn their backs too. We cede the moral high ground and we undermine our own economic competitiveness.

If ever there were a time for Republicans and Democrats to come together and propose reforms that strengthen our immigration system — and stand up to Trump’s unilateral actions — it is now.

American values and leadership hang in the balance.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, is host of the “Only in America” podcast and author of “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration.” Follow him on Twitter @anoorani.