WASHINGTON (AP) — Top administration officials have been discussing ways to increase pressure on countries with high numbers of citizens who overstay short-term visas, as part of President Trump’s growing focus on immigration heading into his re-election campaign.
The administration could introduce new travel restrictions on nationals from those countries, according to two people familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose private conversations.
The idea, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is one of many under discussion by an administration that is increasingly desperate to satisfy a president who has been angry about the influx of immigrants as he tries to make good on his 2016 campaign promises and energize his base.
The ideas have ranged from the extreme — including Trump’s threat to shut down the southern border and consideration of again separating children from parents — to more subtle tweaks to the legal immigration system, including efforts to clamp down on visa overstays, which, according to the nonpartisan Center for Migration Studies, exceed illegal border crossings.
Plans are also in the works to have Border Patrol agents conduct initial interviews to determine whether immigrants seeking political asylum have a credible fear of returning to their homelands. Border Patrol agents are often the first officials who come into contact with immigrants, and the thinking is that they’ll be less sympathetic than asylum officers. And officials have been considering raising political asylum standards and changing the court system so that the last people in are the first to have their cases adjudicated. Some of the ideas have been proposed, rejected and proposed again.
The administration has also been weighing targeting the remittance payments sent home by people living in the country without documents. White House aide Stephen Miller in particular has been pushing Homeland Security officials to move forward with plans to punish immigrants in the country legally for using public benefits such as food stamps.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said both are topics of focus for the White House.
“It is a top priority for the administration, as has been for two years, to reduce overstay rates for visas and the visa waiver program — and it’s well known that the administration is working to ensure faithful implementation of immigration welfare rules to protect American taxpayers,” he said.
Trump suggested Monday that his threat to send immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities in an effort to exact revenge on Democratic foes is taking effect, though it remains unclear whether such a plan is feasible.
“Those Illegal Immigrants who can no longer be legally held (Congress must fix the laws and loopholes) will be, subject to Homeland Security, given to Sanctuary Cities and States!” Trump tweeted just days after aides insisted the plan had been shelved.
Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment on what, if anything, had changed Monday. And it’s unclear whether Homeland Security has taken any steps to implement the contentious plan. Lawyers there had told the White House that the idea was unfeasible and would be a misuse of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement funds.
ICE is already strapped for cash and resources, and some believe such a plan would end up doing the migrants a favor by placing them in locations that make it easier to for them to put down roots and stay in the country. Trump has gutted DHS’s leadership due to agency pushback against the White House on immigration matters, including some that top DHS officials called illegal.
Democrats on Monday demanded that White House and agency officials turn over internal documents on the administration’s deliberations over the sanctuary city plan.
“Not only does the administration lack the legal authority to transfer detainees in this manner, it is shocking that the president and senior administration officials are even considering manipulating release decisions for purely political reasons,” states a letter signed by three House committee chairmen.
Trump insists he has “the absolute legal right to have apprehended illegal immigrants transferred to Sanctuary Cities.”
He continued to rail about the issue during an appearance in Minnesota on Monday and said the issue could be a winning one for Republicans in 2020, telling the crowd that Republicans could “retake the House” by using the issue. Many moderate Republicans urged Trump to avoid harsh immigration talk in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, warning that it could hurt the party’s chances, especially in the suburbs.
The Republicans wound up losing the House.
U.S. officials say a flood of immigrant families, largely from Central America, is overwhelming the southwestern border. The Border Patrol said the 53,000 families apprehended in March set a record, though Democrats say the administration is exacerbating the problem by aggressively detaining people and limiting the number of applicants for refugee status who are processed.