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Immigration has dominated the US presidential campaign like never before. Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise that, if elected, he will build a “big, beautiful” wall at the US-Mexico border helped secure him the Republican nomination and his rhetoric about illegal immigration appears to have struck a chord with many working-class Americans.
But how many of his election promises on immigration are implementable? And what threats does a Trump presidency pose to migrant and refugee rights in the US and beyond?
Top of Trump’s 10-point plan “to put America first” is, on day one of his presidency, to begin work on “an impenetrable physical wall” that will run the entire 3,200-kilometre length of the US border with Mexico. Numerous commentators have pointed out the near impossibility of such a project. Fences and walls have already been erected along 1,126 kilometres of the border. The topography of much of the remainder is extremely rugged and includes large tracts of privately-owned land.
“A wall along the entire southwest border sounds like an attractive policy option to a lot of people, but on a practical level it would be nearly impossible to do,” Faye Hipsman, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington DC-based independent think tank, told IRIN.
“Getting the money for it is another story too,” she added. “It would cost tens of billions of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine Congress approving that.”
Trump insists that Mexico will pay for the wall, but Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has made it clear that will not happen.
The irony of Trump’s insistence that America needs a wall is that ramped-up border enforcement over the past decade has already reduced illegal border crossings to an all-time low. A significant proportion of those still crossing the border illegally these days are not Mexicans but Central Americans fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum in the US. A wall would not remove their right to claim asylum, points out Allegra Love, a New Mexico-based immigration lawyer. They could simply go to an official point of entry and apply.
There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. Trump has said that he will seek to deport them all, although he has softened his stance recently, saying that he would target up to 6.5 million for swift removal.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, has noted that deporting 11 million people would require “the law enforcement tactics of a police state”, in addition to costing up to $600 billion over 20 years to actually accomplish, according to one study. It would also reduce the US labour force by 6.4 percent at an enormous cost to the economy.
Deporting economic migrants who have just crossed the border from Mexico is relatively straightforward, but most undocumented migrants in the US entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas. Others are waiting for asylum claims to be heard. Backlogged immigration courts mean that deporting someone can take several years.
“Our immigration system is deeply complicated,” said Love. “We have some undocumented migrants who have been in the country for decades, some who are just arriving, and the national debate about [deportation] makes it into an easy moral question.”
While it’s probably far-fetched to imagine that a Trump administration would deport all 11 million undocumented migrants, he could significantly scale up current levels of deportations, which number about 400,000 a year. He has said he would triple the number of immigration enforcement agents and create a new “special deportation task force”.
Trump has also promised to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive order that exempts undocumented migrants who arrived in the US when they were children from deportation. Hipsman said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has had “a huge impact on a large number of peoples’ lives” since it was introduced in 2012. Reversing it would be “an easy thing [Trump] could do in his first week in office”.
The United States has traditionally offered more resettlement spots for refugees than any other country, but that would likely change under a Trump presidency.
“The president sets annual refugee resettlement admissions each year, so it’s something the next president would have a big impact on,” said Hipsman.
Trump has lambasted Democratic rival Hilary Clinton’s promise to increase admissions of refugees from Syria and said he would suspend admissions of refugees from places where “adequate screening cannot occur”; such places would include Syria and Libya. He would also introduce new screening tests that would include an ideological component “to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people”.
“The vast majority of refugees coming from these places are women and children, [and] it’s misinformation to say that they’re not screened adequately or we don’t know how to screen them,” Hipsman told IRIN. “But unfortunately the executive branch does have significant control over refugee admissions.”
If elected, Trump will struggle to get many of his immigration policies through Congress, “but there are a lot of things he can do with executive orders”, said Hipsman.
She added that the possibility of a Trump presidency has immigrant communities around the country worried, not just because of his hard-line policies, but because of the threat of “heightened anti-immigrant sentiment”.
Love agreed. “[If Trump wins] there’s going to be a lot of fear and hateful people who suddenly have the force of the presidency behind them, and that’s going to cause violence against the people in my community,” she told IRIN.
“My clients are very worried. The whole debate is validating and normalising hate speech against migrants.”
In an increasingly polarised America, with Clinton promising to follow through on Obama’s “progressive” reforms, that debate may happen regardless of who emerges victorious after the polls on Tuesday.