WASHINGTON (CN) – Sparking as much consternation in some parts of the country as delight in others, the formation of President-elect Donald Trump’s administration has experts forecasting that he intends to pursue many of his immigration proposals.
At NumbersUSA, an education and research foundation that advocates for lower immigration levels, vice president Rosemary Jenks said she is thrilled by the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Reached on the phone for an interview, Jenks called the Alabama Republican is “a voice of sanity” on immigration.
“He’s a voice of reason,” she added.
“Senator Sessions has been really the lone voice in the Senate pushing for an immigration policy that serves the interest of American workers,” said Jenks, whose other title at NumbersUSA is director of government relations. “Senator Sessions has been an incredibly strong and persistent voice for going back to the recognition that immigration policy is really about labor policy.”
Though Jenks sees Sessions as the most influential figure in the formation of President-elect Trump’s immigration policy, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has made his mark, too.
Best known for having co-designed an Arizona law sharply criticized as anti-immigrant –SB1070, which contained the “papers, please,” provision – Kobach also contributed in 2002 to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.
Ended by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011, the NSEERS program drew heavy criticism for its requirement to have the government fingerprint and regular monitor noncitizens from 25 countries, most of which are Muslim-majority.
The program resulted in no terror convictions, but it is a key part of the strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security that Kobach was photographed holding at a Nov. 20 meeting with Trump.
Once reinstated in the first 365 days of Trump’s administration, the NSEERS program would track “all aliens from high-risk areas,” and would freeze admission of Syrian refugees. The plan also recommends “extreme vetting questions for high-risk aliens” about their support for Sharia, jihad, gender equality and the U.S. Constitution.
The Program Will Still Target Muslims
Immigration lawyer Hassan Ahmad said the NSEERS program was a disaster for some of his clients, and fears that a Kobach revival of the program will not fare any better.
“Essentially NSEERS as it was before in its original form became just a deportation pipeline,” Ahmad said in a phone interview.
“It was much ado about nothing,” Ahmad said. “It was a bigotry-flavored, self-licking ice cream cone – a bureaucracy that existed only to serve itself,” he added.
Since 2004, Kobach has served as legal counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. The Southern Poverty Law Center has laid out FAIR’s ties to white supremacists and eugenicists, and its attempts to severely limit immigration into the United States.
FAIR did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Voicing concerned about Kobach’s plan for the first 365 days, Ahmad noted that everyone can get behind national-security measures, but Kobach’s plan is “a full-out assault on immigration and the immigration system.”
“It’s going to make things vastly more difficult for people of certain backgrounds,” and it will “infringe on the free exercise of religion,” Ahmad added.
The concern is substantiated, Ahmad noted, by Kobach’s proposal to question Muslim immigrants about their support for Sharia, jihad, gender equality and the Constitution.
“First of all, it’s hard to determine someone’s political beliefs,” he said. “Second, it plays into this narrative of Sharia and jihad as defined by people who don’t actually believe in these terms.”
“Sharia is what tells a Muslim to pray five times a day,” he said. “Sharia is what tells a Muslim to engage in charitable works. Sharia tells a Muslim to respect their parents and their elders.”
There is a similar problem with asking a Muslim about jihad, he added.
“Under its original interpretation, jihad meant a struggle,” he said. “A struggle to better yourself, a struggle against temptation and a struggle against base desires.”
Having to answer questions about Sharia and jihad will prove tricky for Muslims.
“How do you answer that without damning yourself, and risk not being able to come into the United States,” Ahmad asked.
The U.S. has sophisticated vetting procedures that utilize multiple databases that talk to each other. The ability to adequately vet people gets better with time, Ahmad said, noting that policies intended to thwart terrorism will examine a person’s actions.
On the other hand, “policies that are intended to be bigoted and xenophobic are going to start by profiling based on religion and national origin,” he said. “And that’s what we’re seeing here with Mr. Kobach’s proposals.”
Trump Not Likely to Back Down
Muzaffar Chishti with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute said in an interview that it’s difficult to pin the president-elect down on policy specifics because he can be vague and contradictory.
As to why he takes Trump’s immigration proposals more seriously, Chishti noted how strongly the president-elect framed his campaign on immigration.
“We do know that he had a reasonably specific immigration program,” Chishti said during a phone interview. “I actually think he had a more specific immigration program on paper than Secretary Clinton did. And he kind of got lost in his rambling. But between these rambles, there was a lot of specificity.”
That specificity came from Kobach and Sessions, Chishti said. In fact, like Jenks, Chishti credits Sessions with Trump’s 10-point immigration plan.
Among the plan’s proposals is building the border wall, deporting criminal aliens and undoing President Obama’s executive immigration orders, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which effectively granted amnesty to certain groups.
DACA allows undocumented immigrants who arrived before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to be exempt from deportation in two-year, renewable increments.
It remains to be seen how far the president-elect will get with his proposals, but Kobach has left a deep imprint on federal immigration policy. He first made waves during the George W. Bush administration, when he helped John Ashcroft’s Justice Department push a policy to let state and local law-enforcement officers arrest unauthorized immigrants for violating immigration law.
That policy essentially became the basis for Arizona’s SB1070, which Kobach drafted with former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce. Though the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the law in 2012, it left intact the most controversial part of the law, which requires law enforcement officers to check a person’s immigration status if they believe someone is in the country unlawfully.
Kobach’s influence on the president-elect’s immigration proposals raises some concerns for Chishti.
“Sections of the immigrant community have good reason to feel fearful,” he said. “It’s not an imagined fear when you’ve campaigned for a year and a half that all 11.5 million people will be deported on Day 1.”
Trump, in a recent 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl, appeared to back off on his promise to deport all undocumented immigrants in the country.
Jenks from NumbersUSA meanwhile takes heart in Trump’s resolve to deport 2 million to 3 million criminal migrants.
“It makes sense to start with criminal aliens who are putting American lives at risk,” she said.
But Chishti said he does not know where Trump got those numbers from.
“It’s based on nothing, no figures that we have seen,” he said.
According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, of the 1.9 million noncitizens that the Department of Homeland Security has identified as removable, 820,000 unauthorized immigrants likely have criminal convictions. The organization estimates that 300,000 have felony convictions and another 390,000 have serious misdemeanors.
The promise to deport this group of people actually closely resembles the deportation policies of the Obama administration, Chishti said, which has prioritized the removal of criminals, public-safety threats, recent border-crossers and those with outstanding deportation orders.
But Trump will still encounter obstacles.
Homeland Security has the resources to deport only 400,000 people annually. Increasing that number will require more money from Congress, and Chishti said deportation hearings will hamper any attempt to accelerate removals.
The Justice Department meanwhile faces a backlog of 520,000 immigration cases, and the average wait time for a removal hearing is 675 days, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
Additionally, deportations will likely face resistance from local law-enforcement agencies. Already, police chiefs and mayors in several major cities across the country have said they will not help the Trump administration carry out deportations.
It Shouldn’t Be Controversial
Most of the president-elect’s immigration policies are already on the books, Jenks said.
“He is essentially saying – not fully but to a large degree – I’m going to do what the Constitution says I must do and enforce the law,” Jenks said. “And that shouldn’t be controversial.”
E-Verify, a program that helps businesses determine if new hires are eligible to work in the U.S., was created in 1997. And the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act restricted unauthorized labor when it was passed in 1996. The IIRRA also required an entry-exit screening system for foreign nationals.
“These things have been on the books for decades and they haven’t been enforced,” Jenks said. “And so sadly, there’s no other body of law in America that is so readily dismissed as immigration law.”
Jenks noted that a border fence was first authorized in 1996 as well, but that has been a low priority for NumbersUSA.
“We have never been totally insistent on a border wall,” she said, though adding that a barrier on the border is necessary for national-security concerns. “In terms of stopping illegal immigration, it’s far more important to have E-Verify and a biometric entry-exit system in place,” Jenks added.
Homeland Security has been slow to fully implement the exit portion of the biometric screening system, which Congress mandated in 2006.
During testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in January, John Wagner with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the main obstacle is that the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to easily implement a biometric exit system without disrupting travel flows.
But Jenks said Homeland Security has been reluctant to implement the system absent congressional pressure. And it has been politically expedient to dismiss immigration law, she said.
“Democrats want cheap votes and Republicans want cheap labor, and that’s all about the divide between Wall Street and Main Street,” she said. “It’s the elites on both sides of the political aisle who are more than happy with open borders and mass immigration, because it benefits them.”
But the average American worker pays the price for that, she said.
“I think Donald Trump recognized that and addressed it head-on, for the first time in years,” she added.
Communities Brace for the Worst
Meanwhile, immigrant communities across the country are bracing for the impact of what might be coming, and some of their representatives are trying to figure out how to protect them.
“I’m not trying to sound like a doomsday-er,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., during a phone interview. “I think we need to be honest with people and prepare our campaigns for public opinion.”
In addition to congressional action, Grijalva wants cities and states to focus on how to defend and protect vulnerable groups. Most important though is a national strategy.
“It has to be a campaign in which we provide some defense and protection for people, and at the same time begin to turn public opinion in favor of sanity and compassion,” Grijalva said. “That’s what we need to do.”
In Grijalva’s district in Arizona, DACA recipients and others feel under siege, he said. They worry that their immigration status will be dramatically changed in the coming months.
Communities in his district are gripped with “anxiety and fear of the unknown,” and are waiting for the next shoe to drop, he said.
To illustrate this point, Grijalva cited an armed robbery that occurred on Nov. 16 of the Ministerios Dios Es Mi Fuerza church in the south side of Tucson, a predominantly Latino part of the city. Local news reported that many churchgoers left before police arrived on the scene.
Grijalva said they left because they feared exposing their immigration status.
“These are families, at a church, and that’s the palatable anxiety and fear,” he said. “That’s the best example I can give you.”
Like Chishti, Grijalva said that he is taking Trump’s immigration proposals seriously, because the president-elect used immigration as “red meat” on the campaign trail.
Anyone who thinks there is room to negotiate is “living in a fool’s paradise,” said Grijalva.
Trying to stay pragmatic, the congressman noted that he hopes he is wrong about that.
“If some people think there is some chance of a middle ground, I’d rather go on the assumption that based on the people around him – especially Kobach – that there will be no backing off on his rhetoric,” he said.