President Donald Trump’s expansive immigration plans are about to crash into reality.
His vow to revive a controversial Bush-era immigration enforcement plan could trigger major conflict between local cities and the feds. He’ll need help from Congress to carry out his border security wish list, which will prompt a significant political battle on Capitol Hill. And advocacy groups are already threatening litigation over Trump’s ambitious enforcement plans.
While Trump’s far-reaching directive — rolled out in two executive orders on Wednesday — fulfills, for now, his chief campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigration, whether Trump’s vision will ultimately come to life largely depends on two institutions out of his control: Congress and the courts.
“It’s not all stuff he can necessarily do on his own,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration policies. “In a sense, the orders are a combination of directives and requests, if you think about it.”
“This approach to enforcement is counterproductive to the goal that it intends to achieve,” added Leon Fresco, a former top Justice Department official and immigration aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “There’s very little that can be done administratively that won’t get tied up in litigation.”
With much fanfare, Trump’s White House unveiled the executive actions that would jumpstart construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, bolster the number of enforcement agents and significantly broaden the list of offenses that may lead to undocumented immigrants becoming ensnared by immigration officials.
Among the most dramatic policy changes from Trump are his plans to bring back Secure Communities, an aggressive immigration enforcement program which began under President George W. Bush in 2008 and was used by President Barack Obama until he began phasing it out in November 2014.
At its core, Secure Communities allowed federal immigration officials, using fingerprint data, to call on local jails to detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. Parts of the program have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts, and it’s an open question whether cities — big or small — will want to join an initiative that could land them in legal hot water, experts say.
That’s even with the threat of revoked federal funding from the Trump administration, who also said Wednesday that they would cut off money from so-called “sanctuary cities” that defy cooperation requests from federal immigration officials. The rise of sanctuary cities has been fueled by programs such as Secure Communities that relied heavily on local authorities to carry out immigration enforcement.
“It’s not just Philadelphia or Chicago or San Francisco, there are over 500 localities … around the country who have said, I’m reading the same court decisions and my counsel is telling me I am held liable when you get it wrong,” said Jonathan Blazer, the advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And they’re getting it wrong all the time.”
Trump’s immigration enforcement plans are sure to get tangled up in litigation, raising questions about the future of his far-reaching directive. Advocates for undocumented immigrants have already vowed to sue over the president’s proposals, which they believe will trigger a wave of racial profiling and unconstitutional practices.
“We’re definitely looking at litigation as one of our strongest tools,” said Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “In order for this to be implemented in a way that satisfies what appears to be Trump’s vision, the only way to do that is by overreaching and running afoul of the Constitution.”
Mayors of liberal cities were already denouncing the directive, with Marty Walsh in Boston and Bill de Blasio in New York City declaring that their cities are safe for undocumented immigrants — and how that won’t change even in the light of Trump’s unilateral actions.
“The stroke of a pen in Washington does not change the people of New York City or our values,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “We will not deport law abiding New Yorkers. We will not tear families apart.”
Even murkier is the future of Trump’s prized border wall and accompanying boost in security personnel.
The Trump administration can’t simply shuffle federal funding around to pay for his immigration plans. First of all, Congress has the power to designate how taxpayer dollars should be spent. And there’s probably not a lot of cash to move around anyway, according to immigration experts — particularly in an age where the federal government is running on stopgap funding measures and money is already scarce.
Fresco said: “If all you’re going to do is re-appropriate funds, and you could find someone who takes a camera picture of the 2,000-mile border today and a year from now, it would be very hard to tell which picture is which.”
Bowing to that reality, both the White House and top lawmakers already say Congress will have to step in with additional funding to ensure Trump’s border wall is fully executed and more agents can get hired. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told Republicans in a closed-door session at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia that Congress will take up a supplemental appropriations bill to help implement Trump’s plan.
One senior congressional Republican official said several provisions would definitely need additional sign-off from Capitol Hill — such as completing the wall, expanding immigrant detention facilities, and bolstering border patrol personnel. Such major reinforcements in border security, without the promise of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is almost sure to attract little support from Democrats.
“He might be able to move some money around, but this is an expensive grocery list,” the GOP official said. “Can’t buy it all with cash in hand.”
But for now, Trump’s chief aim may be sending a message that he is ushering in a new era of immigration enforcement, experts say — and whether it actually occurs is to be determined.
“A lot of this is about sending signals,” added Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to see how it plays out.”
Laura Nahmias contributed to this report from New York City.