WASHINGTON - The three men who could have the most power over the immediate future of immigrants and refugees in the United States testified before the Senate this week. Their responses during these confirmation hearings for some of the highest-profile positions in the Cabinet — secretary of state, secretary of the department of homeland security (DHS) and attorney general — provide no guarantees of what the new president and his administration will do.
But they offered new insights into what decisions could affect new Americans and those seeking to come to the U.S.
Immigration hardliners in Washington, who advocate for dramatic changes to deter new arrivals, agree that the triumvirate that testified this week will largely support the immigration agenda of President-elect Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, advocates for immigrant rights, the undocumented community, and refugees, are anxious — as are many of their clients, who are uncertain of the changes coming their way. Royce Murray, of the American Immigration Council, says overall the incoming administration “has signaled an antipathy towards immigrants.”
“We're hoping that the tone shifts post-Inauguration to one that is more reflective of what Americans value — which is our country being a nation of immigrants."
“Nobody builds walls better than me”
Trump talked a lot about building walls on the campaign trail. He said Mexico would pay for the many billion-dollar barrier, though Mexican officials have publicly rejected that notion. Neither Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson nor Attorney General candidate Jeff Sessions were asked specifically about the wall, but possible Homeland Security secretary Gen. John Kelly, who has met with patrol agents along the southern border, told the Senate committee questioning him that “as a military person that understands defense and defenses, a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restrictionist immigration policies, says, “There's a certain degree to which Trump's talk about the wall during the campaign was metaphorical … shorthand for tightening immigration enforcement in general.”
“The wall is not job one,” says Krikorian, “although politically speaking, [Trump's] going to have to do something on the wall.”
President-elect Trump and some advisers have publicly expressed interest in registration and surveillance of Muslims. The three nominees downplayed any overt commitment to a registry of Muslims, whether for Americans, or immigrants and travelers.
But they didn't discount the possibility of a workaround academics and immigration experts have described, similar to the defunct NSEERS program, that could target nationals from Muslim-majority countries, without explicitly being a ban or registry of Muslims.
Sessions associated the registry question with national security issues: “Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States. I did not want to have a resolution that suggested that that could not be a factor in the vetting process before someone is admitted. But I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Tillerson also did not object to a national registry for Muslims in the U.S., telling Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, “I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed.”
Kelly took a notably gentler tone, without vetoing the idea completely, saying, “I don't think it's ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor. ... I don't agree with registering people based on [ethnicity] or religion or anything like that.”
On Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
Trump repeatedly said he would “immediately terminate” the program, without detailing what would happen to the young people currently benefiting from the 2012 Obama policy.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, who met certain criteria, were eligible to apply for renewable, two-year work permits and deferred action from deportation.
It is, by most accounts, almost a certainty that Trump's administration will rescind that executive mandate, though Congress is attempting to push through a stop-gap bill that would protect those beneficiaries if the policy ended.
Sessions supports revoking the policy. “Department of Justice I think would have no objection to a decision to abandon that order because it is very questionable, in my opinion, constitutionally,” he said.
Asked about the future of those who already signed on to the program, Sessions said, “I would try to be supportive,” but did not specify what that would mean.
The order was initially issued through DHS; Kelly explained that while he hasn't been involved in the immigration policy discussions during the transition, he would “guess that this category might not be the highest priority for removal … I think law abiding individuals would in my mind with limited assets to execute the law probably not be at the top of the list.”
Plight and flight of refugees
As a candidate, Trump called for various levels of restrictions on refugees, and proposed a ban on Syrian arrivals. To the surprise of immigration experts on both sides, Tillerson was not questioned about the refugee program, though he would have the lead role in admissions.
Although the Justice Department does not have jurisdiction over the program, Sessions told senators, “We will not end the refugee program,” while Kelly repeated Trump's rhetoric of equating refugees — who are already heavily vetted through a multi-step system — with security concerns.
“You can't guarantee 100 percent, and if you are taking in large numbers of people, or any people from places where you really can't vet them very well, I guess, you do the best you can. ... But we do have a responsibility to be careful and make sure those who are admitted have been properly vetted and are not a danger.”
A cause dear to hawkish immigration analysts is increased monitoring of when visa recipients leave, and Kelly — who as the head of DHS would supervise the first lines of such checks through the various enforcement agencies — said during his confirmation hearing that “we have got to do better with the systems first of all alerting us that someone has stayed past and then as appropriate, perhaps send someone to their house or their last known residence and ask them why they haven't departed yet.”
Revoking birthright citizenship
None of the nominees was asked — or otherwise provided comment — on some of Trump's more radical ideas for the U.S. immigration system, like amending the Constitution to revoke birthright citizenship.
Ultimately, Trump — who campaigned for 18 months on a decidedly restrictionist, isolationist platform — could defer to using executive action and issue top-down mandates to his cabinet members.
“There's so much that he's said. ... but at the same time, so much uncertainty on what they're actually going to do and how they're going to do it," says Matthew La Corte, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Niskanen Center.