It is no secret that the Trump administration has declared war against immigrants and refugees in America. In September 2017, Trump ended DACA, the program that protected young undocumented immigrants from deportation. We’ve heard crowds at his rallies chant “build the wall” for years now. The courts are currently deciding the fate of Trump’s shameful Muslim ban. We’ve seen alarming headlines about federal agencies separating children from their parents, and treating immigrants who cross the border the way Trump wants them to be treated: like “animals,” “criminals,” “rapists,” “gang members,” from “shithole” countries. Recently, a border patrol officer shot an unarmed young woman named Claudia Gonzalez in the head, killing her, then claimed, incredibly, to have feared for his safety. Trump has become the face of the nativist movement in America, but quietly driving the headlines and racist language is an anti-immigrant army infiltrating every part of the federal government.
Listening to Trump rant at rallies isn’t enough to understand the scope of Trump’s agenda to deport millions of immigrants, end legal immigration, and dismantle refugee programs. You have to understand the work of people like John Tanton, the founder of two of the most radical organizations of the nativist movement in America. Tanton, an ophthalmologist by training, has been on a crusade to end U.S. immigration since the late 1970s when he founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform, (FAIR) and later the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Tanton has advocated for English-only education in schools, citing concerns that whites are seeing their “power and control over their lives declining.”
FAIR has received funding from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation established “to advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” The same organization has funded research to advance the discredited idea that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. The Center for Immigration Studies has a long history of publishing research and writings by white nationalist and anti-semitic writers. CIS, like FAIR, has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
While both organizations have distanced themselves from their founder and have traded outright racist rhetoric for “rule of law” language, they continue to be “racists in three-piece suits who talk like professors,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, in an interview for this article.
America’s voice, a pro-immigrant organization, has been battling groups like CIS, and FAIR for years. One of Sharry’s biggest concern, and one I share, is that former leaders of these organizations now play a central role in the Trump administration’s zero-immigration agenda.
Trump has stacked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the State Department with former staff and leadership from FAIR, and CIS mostly in positions that do not require congressional confirmation. In April, the administration tapped Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of FAIR to advise the acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Since joining DHS she has been promoted to serve as the Ombudsman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the nation’s immigration agency. In her new role she is tasked with helping immigrants and their sponsors navigate the legal immigration system when they encounter issues, such as applications that are wrongfully rejected. A woman who spent ten years seeking to reduce overall immigration, despite being a daughter of a Hungarian immigrant, is now tasked with helping immigrants navigate the applications process.
The hiring of immigration hardliners at USCIS under the Trump administration is not new. USCIS’s director is Lee Francis Cissna, who eliminated “a nation of immigrants” from the agency’s mission statement during his first few weeks on the job. Cissna, the son of a Peruvian immigrant, was a legal aide for Senator Chuck Grassley. While at Grassley’s office, he authored dozens of letters, including one in November 2016 claiming thousands of immigrants were “amasssing” at the southern border with the intention of “asserting dubious” asylum claims. If that language sounds familiar is because it is the same language Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been using to justify separating children from their parents at the border. Cissna has also spoken at a CIS conference on a panel called “The Betrayal of America’s Best and Brightest,” where he argued against the HB-1 visa program for “high skilled” immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency that carries out deportations, hired Jon Feere as an adviser in April. Feere, a former staffer at CIS, has argued for the end of birthright citizenship and has attacked Dreamers saying they are not loyal enough to the United States. Feere’s hiring ensures that every major DHS agency employs a former CIS or FAIR staffer.
While most immigration-related enforcement and policy happens within DHS, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) is housed under the State Department as the U.S. refugee program has been a critical tool of American diplomacy. In March, PRM hired Andrew Veprek, a close associate of nativist White House adviser Stephen Miller, as a deputy assistant secretary. The position does not require senate confirmation.
The Bureau’s mission is to provide aid and solutions for refugees and victims of conflict around the world through repatriation, local integration, and resettlement in the United States. While at the White House Veprek successfully argued to lower the refugee cap to the lowest level in three decades. PRM has come under scrutiny as it only granted entry to 34 Syrian, and 81 Iraqi refugees between October 2017 and January 2018. During the same period the previous year the agency admitted 4,700 refugees from each country. The bureau has not explained why so few refugees have been admitted. Many estimates suggest that while the cap allows for 45,000 refugees, the U.S. is on track to admit only half of that figure.
The takeover of the federal government by anti-immigrant personnel continues as Trump has recently nominated Ronald Mortensen, a fellow at CIS to be Veprek’s boss and lead PRM. Of the bureau’s $3.4 billion budget, $1.3 billion is allocated to help those displaced from Syria and Iraq. While at CIS, Mortensen wrote that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had “rolled out the welcome mat for ISIS on America’s southern border.” It is difficult to imagine the agency filling this year’s refugee cap under the leadership of someone who harbors this sentiment.
Each of these hires and nominations points to the destruction the Trump administration wants to inflict on immigrant and refugee communities. They do not only want to stop undocumented immigrants, in a statement FWD.us, a bipartisan pro-immigrant organization, said “[Mortensen’s] nomination is part of a very deliberate policy agenda by this Administration to radically restrict legal immigration and deter others from immigrating to the United States.” One way to curtail legal immigration is to deter it, by showing the world that the U.S. government will treat its legal immigrants with extreme cruelty.
Trump understands he has the latitude to institute harmful policies that do not require changes in the laws and can therefore bypass Congress, and he has enlisted some of the most xenophobic people in American political life to carry out his plans.