Immigration has been a flashpoint of the U.S. political debate for decades. Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform have repeatedly foundered in Congress due to disagreement over creating a path to citizenship for the estimated eleven million undocumented residents of the United States, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America.
Legislative inaction has moved immigration policy largely into the realm of executive action. President Barack Obama issued executive orders to shield some groups from deportation, including undocumented residents brought to the country as children, even as his administration deported record numbers of people. Since 2017, President Donald J. Trump has set out to use executive orders and other means to overhaul all aspects of immigration policy.
Trump has framed the situation at the southern border as a national emergency, issuing harsh invective against refugees and asylum seekers and shutting down the federal government over immigration negotiations. Some of his promises to take extraordinary measures, including building out the border wall with Mexico and deporting millions, haven’t yet materialized. But he has pressed ahead with others, such as banning residents of certain countries from entering the United States and slashing refugee admissions. Many of these moves have been challenged in federal courts, leaving swaths of immigration policy in legal limbo.
Chief among those areas of uncertainty is the U.S. asylum system, which is under unprecedented stress as record numbers of people from Central America have arrived at the U.S. southern border seeking protection. Trump has upended decades of bipartisan consensus on welcoming refugees by opening new detention centers, separating children from their parents and guardians, and seeking to send asylum seekers to other countries. The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, champion immigration, vow to protect asylum seekers, and promise to reverse many of Trump’s policies, even while remaining divided over border enforcement.