The past four years under the Trump Administration have seen numerous changes to immigration law, primarily through an unprecedented use of executive orders and policy changes, but also through new regulations. 2020 was no different, and, in many ways, we faced an even greater onslaught of attacks against the immigration system. As a consequence, many individuals who are seeking protection have been denied that protection, and many families have been kept separated through travel bans and consulate closures.
Here are a few of the major changes from the past year alone:
1. Public Charge Regulations:
Although it feels like an eternity ago, in February, the new public charge regulations went into effect. These regulations have bounced around the courts like a ping-pong ball—enjoined one week, back in effect the next, and, finally, enjoined in some states but not others. These shifts have made it hard to advise our clients on how the new rule applies to them. And, for all clients, the new rule has made reuniting families more difficult. The regulation now places a substantial burden on those immigrants who want to join their families in the U.S. The immigrants must prove that they can quickly become self-sufficient in the U.S. The rule imposes a balancing test, weighing factors like age, ability to speak English, years in school, income, assets, debts, and health conditions. Different elements of each factor are given positive or negative weight, and some are heavily weighted. The rule hits elderly parents the hardest, particularly at a time in their lives when they want to join their children and grandchildren and often intend to come care for their grandchildren. We expect that eventually the Biden administration will rescind this extremely unpopular rule, but it may take some time.
2. Coronavirus Delays & Closures:
Soon after the public charge regulations came into effect, the world was disrupted by the novel coronavirus/Covid-19. By late March, all of the immigration offices were shut down, except for some service centers that continued to accept applications and process them. Any office that required face-to-face meetings with immigrants was closed. This caused major disruptions in immigration processing. USCIS offices did not re-open for interviews until June of 2020, and, even then, interview numbers were restricted to ensure the safety of everyone visiting the office. To this day, we see continued delays and long-waits for interviews. Around the world, US consulates were closed except for emergency services for citizens. Many consulates continue to be closed. Others have very limited interviews for spouses and children of United States citizens. Of particular concern, some consulates, like the one in Ciudad Juarez, already had major backlogs and delays. The closure of nearly a year, at this point, will undoubtedly delay many cases even longer. This means families will be separated for several more years if processing is not sped up when the consulates reopen.
3. Travel Bans:
Beginning in January, the Trump Administration instituted several different travel bans, first focusing on travelers from certain countries, such as China. In April, the Trump Administration created a blanket ban on most new visas, stating that the ban was necessary to protect American jobs during the pandemic. This ban, and subsequent extensions, in effect stopped visa processing for almost all visas, whether temporary or for permanent resident status, from everyone except spouses and children of United States citizens. There have been some limited exceptions gained through lawsuits, but, in general, the bans have held. President Trump ordered another extension at the end of December 2020, which is to be in effect until March. We presume that President-elect Biden will end the visa ban when he takes office. Nevertheless, this ban has extended the separation time for many families. We will be happy to see this go.
As with all election years, we saw an uptick in new clients seeking naturalization, with the hope that they could be citizens in time to vote in the Presidential election. USCIS generally prioritizes and expedites naturalization applications and oath ceremonies during election years. This year, however, was very different. Ostensibly, because of Covid, the Trump Administration halted all interviews and oath ceremonies from March until June. Once the offices reopened, it was halting, and only previously cancelled interviews (those set to be interviewed in March and April) were rescheduled. Slowly, by fall, we did see many of our Spring naturalization clients interviewed, but, by that time, it was too late to vote.
In addition, in December, the Trump Administration instituted, with little warning, a new naturalization test.This test expands the number of possible questions from 100 to 128 and increases the numbers of questions asked from 10 to 20.Many of the questions were also edited to conform to the Trump Administration’s views on US government and policy. For example, a previous question asked: Who does a Senator Represent, with the answer being: all people of their state. The new answer is: All citizens of their state—a clear difference that excludes many immigrants, including long-time tax-paying residents and US non-citizen nationals.
This new, more difficult civics test, applies only to those who file their naturalization applications after December 1, 2020.
No other area of immigration law suffered more than asylum, and the Trump Administration made many changes through policy and regulations in 2020. Among the most harmful to asylum seekers came in the last half of the year. At the end of August, the Trump Administration implemented new regulations that limited the ability of asylum seekers to obtain employment authorization while their cases are pending. Previously, an asylum seeker would have to wait 180 days after applying for asylum before he or she could receive permission to work in the United States. The new regulations require asylum seekers to wait 365 days before applying for such permission (and add to that several more months of processing). They also exclude any applicant who entered the United States without valid status (such as a visa) or who have been convicted of crimes from getting the temporary employment authorization.
Throughout the fall, we saw several additional assaults to asylum through regulation and policy, including a major overhaul deemed the “Death to Asylum” rule. This regulation was to go into effect on January 11, but was stayed by the courts. Had the rule gone into effect, it would have fundamentally changed asylum law. We hope the new administration will rescind this rule quickly, if it is not first overturned by the courts.