For all the sound and fury of his first 39 days in office, President Donald Trump has not yet dismantled President Obama’s health reforms, Wall Street regulations, or climate rules. He hasn’t started overhauling America’s tax code, rehabbing America’s infrastructure, or building a border wall. But even though Trump has done less to change federal policies than his blustery boasts and fiery tweets might suggest, he’s already having a real impact on Jaime, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant living just a few miles from his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Jaime is not the kind of illegal alien Trump would call a “bad hombre.” His grandmother brought him to the United States last September, after gang members in his hometown of La Union, El Salvador, showed up at one of his soccer games and killed his grandfather. He’s now living with his mother, a hardworking house cleaner who snuck into to the U.S. in 2008, and he’s doing well in school, even though he has to use a Spanish translation app to decipher his homework assignments.
But Jaime and his family—except for his 2-year-old brother, an American citizen—are violating America’s immigration laws, and they are now at constant risk of deportation. In recent years, the Obama administration had made a policy choice to stop pursuing most non-criminal aliens, and to help reunite many undocumented children with their parents in the U.S. But unlike laws and regulations, policy choices can be reversed in a hurry, and the Trump administration has done that. His Department of Homeland Security has issued two new memos specifically reversing Obama’s directives for leniency at the border and inside the country, declaring that “the Department no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
“I’m scared when I go to school that I’ll get caught. I’m scared when my mom goes to work that she won’t come back,” says Jaime, who used a pseudonym to avoid alerting immigration officials to his case. “I don’t know what would happen.”
Tonight, the president will deliver his first address to Congress, and he’s likely to continue his recent bragging about how much he’s accomplished in a short time. A list of White House talking points for his speech began: “One by one, President Trump has been checking off the promises he made to the American people.” So far, though, he’s mostly just reaffirmed his desire to check off those promises in the future, making showy announcements of brash executive orders with little substantive effect. He’s made a lot of news; he’s picked a lot of fights; he’s sent a lot of tweets. But other than transform America’s approach to illegal immigration—which is not a small thing—he really hasn’t gotten a lot done.
That’s because getting things done in Washington is hard. It’s already clear that even with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Trump will struggle to keep his promises to repeal Obamacare and pass tax reform. So far, he’s only managed to sign two substantive bills into law, both killing obscure Obama-era regulations that fossil-fuel interests didn’t like. And both of those bills relied on a special fast-track mechanism for undoing rules passed late in a presidential administration. Trump has also promised to roll back a slew of earlier regulations, including Obama’s Clean Power Plan restricting carbon emissions. But there’s a legal process for unmaking rules, full of public comment periods, public hearings, and other statutory requirements, and it’s as laborious as the process for making the rules in the first place.
Even on immigration, Trump has watched his executive order stemming the flow of Muslim refugees stymied by uncooperative judges, and his call for a wall on the Mexican border tabled by the need for congressional funding. But when it comes to routine immigration enforcement, the two DHS memos have truly revamped the government strategy, pushing detention instead of “catch-and-release” at the border while making it clear that families like Jaime’s can no longer expect a safe haven once they make it inside the U.S. And supporters of the new policies say they’re sending an even stronger message to potential migrants in other countries, who will now think twice about coming to America. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform, says the Obama approach amounted to a billboard inviting foreigners to sneak across the border without consequences, while the Trump approach amounts to a warning.
“People are rational,” Mehlman said. “When you signal that our immigration laws aren’t going to be enforced unless you commit a heinous crime, you get chaos. When you signal that you’re taking immigration laws seriously, people won’t come.”
The overall number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. did not increase at all under Obama, who started out so tough on border security that immigrant advocates dubbed him the “deporter-in-chief.” But after his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform died in Congress in 2013, his administration began announcing policies designed to focus on dangerous criminal aliens and leave other undocumented immigrants alone. In recent years, many of those migrants have come from the gang-ravaged Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in search of safety and opportunity, and Jaime’s story illuminates how Trump’s policies could change their calculus.
Jaime’s grandfather led a fishing cooperative in La Union, and in recent years the gangs that operate with near-impunity in the region had demanded a portion of his catch. Then one day Jaime watched as they stormed into his home and held a gun to his abuelo’s head, warning that they’d kill the entire family if he didn’t give them his boat. He tried to explain that it belonged to the cooperative, and in any case he needed it to feed his family, but they were apparently unpersuaded by his logic. He was playing cards with friends at Jaime’s soccer game when the gang members gunned him down. Jaime’s grandmother did not even dare to hold a wake; she gathered Jaime and his brother and fled the country.
They paid drivers to take them most of the way to the U.S., then crossed on foot into Texas, where they were scooped up by Border Patrol agents. Jaime and his brother spent three days in a “hielera,” or icebox, as migrants describe the chilly detention cells at the border, and then three weeks in a “perrera,” or dog kennel, another holding facility in San Benito. But they were fortunate to be classified as “unaccompanied minors,” which ensured they would be treated as refugees applying for asylum, rather than defendants in a deportation case. Under the new DHS memos, they wouldn’t have qualified as unaccompanied, since their mother lives in the U.S., and they could have been returned to El Salvador immediately without a hearing.
Instead, the boys were released to the custody of their mother, who paid for their flight to Florida, and told to wait until they received a notice to appear in court. Again, the Trump administration has committed to end those wink-and-nod releases, keeping migrants detained at the border in custody until their hearings. Their mother could have been deported, too; the memos, signed by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, put anyone who finances or otherwise abets an illegal border crossing in legal peril. It’s even unclear whether the Miami legal services group Americans for Immigrant Justice would have been able to contact and represent the boys if they had been detained under the Trump regime; the DHS memos suggest that all federal aid to advocates of undocumented immigrants will be shifted to victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
“We knew things would get bad under Trump, but this is even more horrific than we expected,” says Americans for Immigrant Justice director Cheryl Little. “Most of these kids have valid claims, because they’re in such danger in their home countries. The gangs beat up the boys and rape the girls who don’t join. But now they’re are just going to get put on a plane and sent back in harm’s way.”
Most Republican complaints that Obama governed “by fiat” are overblown. Like all presidents, he signed legislation passed by Congress and enacted rules through a legally prescribed administrative process. But his administration did push the envelope on immigration, using its broad discretion in implementation to direct lenient treatment for undocumented families without criminal records. The courts even ruled that Obama overstepped his legal bounds with a program designed to provide work permits for undocumented parents of American children, such as Jaime’s mother, so the program was scrapped. In any case, discretion that is used for leniency can be used for stridency, and Trump is doing so in a big way. And just as Obama tried to send the message that most undocumented immigrants are decent people who mow your lawns and pick your crops, Trump is trying to send an alternative message that they’re a potential danger to national security.
Jaime’s mother is now terrified that her family will be sent back to a war zone or ripped apart again. She earns only $300 a week, but she might give up the food stamps she receives for her U.S.-born toddler, because she’ll afraid any interaction with government will lead Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to the doorstep of the two-bedroom home she rents in West Palm Beach. She sees herself as a mother, a worker and a churchgoer, not a criminal, but she’s also increasingly afraid of the police—perhaps with good reason, since the DHS memos aim to revitalize an effort to enlist local cops in immigration enforcement.
“I know God will judge me in heaven,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether or not I have papers there.”
The Trump administration says it will continue to prioritize deportations of criminal aliens, but will no longer shield any of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, just as local police offers who prioritize violent crime still make arrests for shoplifting. And Trump’s campaign, with its angry nationalistic themes about Mexican and Muslim immigrants undermining native-born Americans, offered daily evidence that many voters are not sympathetic to families like Jaime’s who may not commit violent crimes, but do defy the law while often receiving government assistance and failing to learn English.
Mehlman says it’s easy to “put a human face” on strivers like Jaime who come to America for a better life, but harder to identify the Americans who suffer when undocumented immigrants take their jobs, depress their wages, or overwhelm schools and social services paid for by their taxes. “It’s always in the interest of immigrants to emigrate,” he says. “The question is: What impact does it have on others? For too long, the interests of the American people have been forgotten.”
It’s remarkable how quickly Trump has been able to apply this America First philosophy to the byzantine world of immigration, laying down a marker that the U.S. will no longer be a sanctuary for the world’s huddled masses. But it’s also remarkable how mightily he has struggled to change policies elsewhere. By this point in Obama’s first term, he had signed an anti-discrimination law helping women to sue for equal pay, a major expansion of children’s health insurance, and an $800 billion emergency stimulus bill that was bigger than the entire New Deal in inflation-adjusted dollars—a single bill that included the largest middle-class tax cut since Reagan and the largest infrastructure investment since Eisenhower, while also launching a clean energy revolution, national adoption of electronic medicine, and the groundbreaking Race to the Top school reforms.
Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Congress had never ratified that trade deal, and wasn’t going to anytime soon. He’s also reinstated and expanded the so-called “global gag rule,” cutting off foreign aid to groups involved with abortion. And he’s signed high-profile executive orders full of negative rhetoric about Obama’s health law, the Dodd-Frank financial rules, and the regulatory state in general. But negative rhetoric can’t get rid of laws or rules. It takes Congress—and usually, a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate—to get rid of a law. It takes a heavily bureaucratic rulemaking process—and inevitably, judges who uphold the legal challenges that follow it—to get rid of a rule.
So far, Trump has shown more interest in saying provocative things about the policies he hopes to change than doing the hard work it would take to change them. Honestly, it’s not clear how much of the public can tell the difference. Trump’s whirlwind of public disruption makes it feel like he’s doing stuff, even when he’s just saying stuff. And the stuff he says—the falsehoods about illegal voters, the attacks on shadowy elites, the new genre of Republican rhetoric—really does matter.
But as Jaime and his family are learning, the stuff he does matters more.