Minnesota immigration advocates hope for quick reversal of Trump policies

Travel ban protesters march down the street in Minneapolis.
Protesters march down the street in Minneapolis to protest President Donald Trump's travel ban in June 2018.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2018

From his travel ban to his efforts to extinguish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have made it challenging for immigrants living in the country to regularize their status and for others to reunite with family from overseas. 

Now many immigrants in Minnesota are cautiously optimistic about their future, hoping an administration under Joe Biden will quickly roll back several regulations that have significantly limited the number of refugees into the country, curtailed work visas and hampered family reunification over the past four years. 

“A lot of us that work in this area knew what the future held for all of our clients really hinged on who won the election,” said Ana Pottratz Acosta, an immigration attorney and associate professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “It was just like a huge weight had been lifted off of all of our shoulders. We knew there was a lot more hope for our clients moving forward.”

Biden has promised to undo Trump’s exhaustive changes to the immigration system, but many observers caution it will take time to restore programs such as refugee resettlement and asylum.  

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The travel ban

One of the most controversial decisions Trump made when he took office was to act on his promise to ban Muslims from the United States. After he took office in 2017, he signed an executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, calling the move necessary for national security. But the ban immediately created confusion and chaos in airports all around the country, keeping those with legal green cards and visas from entering the country. 

A lengthy legal battle in federal court followed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Trump administration’s third version of the Muslim ban in 2018.

But earlier this year, a settlement agreement in a civil rights lawsuit challenging the administration’s ban on refugees required the government to prioritize the processing of refugee cases.

Refugee resettlement

Minnesota has a history of welcoming thousands of refugees and is home to the largest concentration of refugees from Somalia, many of whom have been waiting years to reunite with family members living abroad. 

A man speaks behind a podium.
President Donald Trump speaks at a "Make America Great Again" campaign rally at Duluth International Airport in Duluth, Minn., on Sept. 30.
Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images file

Trump has repeatedly criticized refugee resettlement in Minnesota. During a campaign visit in Duluth he said Biden “will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp” and “inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees,” adding that the number would increase by 700 percent. 

That percentage is technically correct because Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed to settle into the United States to a historic low at 15,000 for fiscal year 2021. That’s an 82 percent drop from fiscal year 2016, when the U.S. resettled nearly 85,000 under the Obama administration. Biden has promised to raise the ceiling to 125,000 refugees nationwide.

Minnesota resettled a total of 891 refugees in 2019 — a 70 percent drop from 2016. While the majority came from Somalia and Burma four years ago, the number of refugees from Somalia dramatically decreased. Last year, more refugees came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Ukraine. 

Micaela Schuneman, refugee services director for the International Institute of Minnesota, said the organization has had to cut staff and shift resources toward more educational programs for existing residents, rather than use them to help resettle new refugees. But she expects numbers to rise after Biden takes office and things to get busy again. 

Biden’s vow to raise the national refugee admissions cap to 125,000 will take time to fulfill, Schuneman said. 

A woman with should-length dark hair sits on a red couch.
Micaela Schuneman is the director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“I don’t expect that number right away because of course we are still in a global pandemic, which is impacting even flight availability,” Schuneman said.

“But I do expect that over the next couple of years we’ll be able to see that State Department infrastructure put back into place and cases can be processed faster.”

The International Institute of Minnesota has resettled more than 25,000 refugees since it started five decades ago. Schuneman said the program has been through various administrations and changes and it’s withstood all of them.

“The past few years have been unprecedented, I would say, in terms of the number of refugees decreasing, the U.S. sort of abdicating some of the leadership in the resettlement program,” she said. “I really look forward to us regaining that leadership role and guiding the rest of the world and showing the rest of the world how we can be a welcoming community for people who have been displaced and persecuted in their countries of origin.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota estimates there are about 9,000 Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals recipients in the state who would be affected by changes in the program.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request by the Trump administration to end the DACA program, which protects immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children from deportation. But lawyers say officials were still making it difficult for current DACA recipients to renew their status, and have been rejecting new applicants all together.

Community members fight President Donald Trump's redaction of DACA.
Over 1,000 individuals participated in the march to fight President Donald Trump's decision to redact DACA in September 2017.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News 2017

“The DACA program, while it’s still in effect, it’s really kind of on life support,” said Pottratz Acosta, the immigration attorney and Mitchell Hamline law professor.

Immigration attorneys and refugee advocates, who for the past four years have heard the president’s rhetoric accompanied by policies such as the travel ban from majority-Muslim countries and historic limits on refugee admissions, believe the Biden administration would implement policies beneficial to Minnesota and its economy. 

Back to how things were

Even with a positive outlook on programs that support immigrant communities, immigration attorneys say Biden’s plans to repeal Trump’s executive orders won’t necessarily reform a complex system, which would need bipartisan support from Congress to provide a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants and those with temporary visas.

Biden served as vice president to Barack Obama, who faced his own challenges with immigration and failed to gain the support of the U.S. House on comprehensive immigration reform. While immigration arrests increased in the country's interior the first year of Trump’s presidency, they were far lower than during Obama’s first term in office, according to the Pew Research Center. That's in part because the Trump administration has prioritized border arrests over arrests in the country’s interior.

In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, federal immigration and border patrol authorities carried out more deportations of unauthorized immigrants at levels that were below those of much of the Obama administration, according to Pew.

Attorney Ana Pottratz Acosta stands for a portrait.
Mitchell Hamline law professor and attorney Ana Pottratz Acosta.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Pottratz Acosta points to a key difference between the two presidencies.

She said the Obama administration still respected the rights of individuals to apply for asylum and present cases in court, something that has been scaled back during the Trump administration. 

“Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice did recognize a number of asylum claims, particularly some nontraditional claims that were gender based,” she said. “So for example, if you are a survivor of domestic violence and in your home country you were not able to go to the police to seek protection, the ability to apply for asylum on that basis was eliminated by the Trump administration.”

Another policy Biden plans to reverse is the public charge rule, which the Trump administration expanded to test for health, age and wealth, making it difficult for low-income families to come to the United States.

The rule had a chilling effect on immigrants already living in Minnesota and across the country who are waiting to become citizens. Immigration advocates say some opted out of food stamps and health care assistance for fear of jeopardizing their immigration status as they wait for the time they can become citizens.

“The change in rhetoric and not having people at the highest levels of government speaking about refugee resettlement and demonizing immigrants in that way, I think that will go a long way toward community support of immigrants,” Schuneman said.