Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Dec 2: 2020 is on track to be one of the three hottest years on record, according to the United Nations’ State of the Climate report. Trump posts a 45-minute video speech repeating baseless allegations that “corrupt forces” had “rigged” the election. He also hints at a 2024 presidential run. The daily COVID death toll hits 3,157, a greater number than that killed on September 11, 2001. 

Dec 3: California goes back to stay-at-home orders. Facebook announces that it will take down misleading information about the COVID vaccine. A Wisconsin high court throws out Trump’s lawsuit challenging Biden’s win in that state. In response to AG Barr’s statement that no evidence has been found of widespread voter fraud, Trump says Barr “hasn’t done anything,” and that his department hasn’t “looked very hard, which is a disappointment, to be honest with you.” An auction for drilling in the Arctic rushes forward before the Trump administration ends.

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

On the one hand, the subtle misrepresentation of historical facts and events on tests administered to hopeful immigrants appears trivial. On the other, this move highlights the current administration’s persistent attempts to overhaul the immigration system in order to make it harder for non-whites to enter or stay in the country.[1] In fact, the current administration has issued almost fifty changes to immigration policy just this year. At first, these appeared to be done in good faith, relating to restricting the spread of coronavirus. Yet, as we saw back on March 6th, and then again in April, the various bans by the federal government never extended to actually conducting thorough health screenings, as happened in other countries. They were “security theater.” In other words, they were bans of people, not of disease. And, while the government lifted some of these restrictions once it became clear that coronavirus was already in the country, most stayed in place, unchecked.

Underneath those publicized restrictions, this administration slipped in other policies that had little to do with stopping coronavirus and more to do with the typical anti-immigration policies we’ve grown all too accustomed to over the last four years. As usual, they focused these policies at people from those countries Trump deemed, xenophobically, “shitholes.”[2] From the perspective of groups like the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, Immigration Justice Campaign, and the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the totality of these years of federal policies, including changing the citizenship test, feel capricious and effective.[3] Yet, according to the Immigration Policy Institute, “the administration’s policies have not led to a marked drop in the number of permanent immigrants, temporary foreign workers, international students, and those receiving asylum in the United States. … There has not been a dramatic, across-the-board ‘Trump effect’ attributable either to the administration’s policies or rhetoric on immigration levels.”[4]

To help solve this puzzle, as well as explain what happened with immigration this year, I reached out to Sarah Pierce, a Policy Analyst for the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). She is an expert in the U.S. legal immigration processes and tracks our employment-based immigration system and the treatment of unaccompanied child migrants.[5]

She agrees that, on the one hand, the Trump administration’s bark was worse than its bite. “It’s hard for the president to entirely change US immigration unilaterally,” she explains. “Immigration enforcement [i.e., arrests and deportations] under the Trump administration has not really increased compared to the end of the Obama administration and definitely is significantly lower than it was at the high points under President Obama.”[6]

I wondered why groups like MPI, CLINIC, and others would be so upset, then. “If you talk to immigrant communities,” she continued, “they’re not going to tell you that. They’re going to say there’s a lot more immigration enforcement happening under Trump, and I think that’s because he revitalized it in several ways. First by releasing the handcuffs off of ICE [Immigration & Customs Enforcement]. By the end of the Obama administration, ICE had strict priorities of who they were supposed to focus on. Within five days of taking office, Trump ‘opened up’ those priorities. Second, by making noise—making immigration enforcement much more visible. … They’ve really leaned into at large [high profile] arrests: immigrants at home, on the street, in stores, or even in sensitive locations. … They’ve also leaned into worksite enforcement actions. You might remember the 7-Eleven [convenience stores] raids? A nationwide raid is a really inefficient way to raise your arrests and deportations, but it is a very good way to raise the visibility of immigration enforcement.”

I think I saw what she meant: “You know that anytime they’re going to show up at your front door or your workplace or your kids’ schools or whatever—and even if they don’t take anybody away—just that fear of them will change your behavior, which is, I guess, what they want.”


“It sounds like state-sponsored terror,” I mused. “Like the bark becomes the bite.” Pierce couldn’t disagree, though maybe I was putting it a little strongly. But what I still didn’t understand was why that was happening at all. Such strong anti-immigrant sentiment that makes immigrants feel terrified even if it doesn’t actually arrest or deport people—meaning it doesn’t actually help American workers who justify their anti-immigration rhetoric by saying they want immigrants out to help blue-collar wages go up. Why was the government doing this?

“The quick answer is ‘I don’t know,’ Pierce admitted. “I mean, during the Trump administration, we’ve seen this pretty extraordinary continued rise in favor of immigration by the public.”

“Wait,” I interjected, “you’re saying that we’ve seen a rise in Americans who are in favor of immigration?”

“Yeah, under Trump! Even for asylum seekers. It’s pretty extraordinary.”

“Wow, even while he sort of continues this mantra of the ‘China virus,’ et cetera?”

“I don’t know if that polling extends past the pandemic,” she cautioned. But she thought the mentality shift still felt significant. “I guess in my mind I would think of it as two groups of people. The large majority of Americans—at least prior to the pandemic—were increasingly in favor of at least legal immigration. But then you have Trump’s ‘base’ …. This negative focus on immigration dates back to the Great Recession. The assumption is ‘globalization’ plus ‘demographic changes’ in the United States are bad for them. So, the economic problems that are going to follow this pandemic year will only bolster what’s already there. I think that’s going to swing them even more extreme on immigration—which is hard. It’s a little bit scary to think about how they could get more extreme than they currently are.”

It occurred to me that maybe a very strong bark without a bite was a way to “have their cake and eat it, too.” Corporations—meat-packing plants, for instance, as we’ve seen over 2020—want more cheap, compliant labor, which a brown-skinned, non-English speaking immigrant to the United States provides. And the CEOs of these corporations are GOP supporters, even important donors. Trump’s ‘base,’ on the other hand, wants fewer brown-skinned immigrants and wants to show ‘strength’ at the ‘border.’ Random raids by armed immigrations agents anywhere in the country keeps Trump’s white base believing that brown-skinned, non-English speaking immigrants are being kept in their place. While comparatively fewer deportations retain cheap labor in the country for the GOP donor elite.

It made sense. State-sponsored terror in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War was mostly quiet; neighbor turning in neighbor for the police to pick up in the middle of the night. In 2020, we only terrorize vulnerable populations who cannot fight back, and we do it for the show, in broad daylight, to applause.

I wondered if she thought things would change, now that Biden and Harris are taking over. Pierce had written recently that the Trump Administration’s layered approach and the aggressive pace of change implementing immigration policies were going to have a lasting impact. So, she wanted to be sure I really understood what the last four years were like, in order to impress just how hard any change will be. The Trump administration came in with a slate of hardline anti-immigration folks and, unlike almost all other aspects of their tenure, this group was competent. “The book Border Wars describes a group of people who were organized early on, including several people from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Francis Cissna, in order to come up with plans on ways to quickly change the immigration system. I have no knowledge of this group outside of this book, but the description of who they are and what they did really aligned with my observations of the administration.”

Pierce was right. It turns out CIS has long-standing standing ties to both the Trump administration and to white nationalist organizations dating back to the last century.[7] And they never let up, never accepted the law or the decisions of the courts. “In the past, it was a pretty extreme idea to view both legal and illegal immigration as a net negative to the United States,” Pierce continued with a grimace. “[Trump’s people] brought that thinking more into the mainstream. This group [CIS] lived on the fringe of the political spectrum for a long time, and they knew that they were going to have their chance with this administration. They have just worked around the clock with some very smart ideas and very good knowledge of our immigration laws and beyond. Now that there’s a pandemic, they’ve used some public health laws to reach their goals as well.” Without an equally dogged, equally well-connected, pro-immigration force in the next administration, we can expect more similarities than differences.

I pressed her on the “kids in cages” phenomena that had appeared in the news a couple of years ago. Ripples of that are still being felt, like the recent revelation that over 500 migrant children still had not been connected up with their parents. Surely that abhorrent practice would be remedied, right?

That, she impressed upon me, was a sad feature of many other bureaucratic tangles—incompetence even more than malevolence. “When you ask for asylum at the southern border, you’re given this initial ‘credible fear’ interview. Most people pass it. It’s designed so most people pass—80% pass it. Then your files are handed over to our immigration court system, and typically you’re permitted to enter the United States and stay here while your application is being adjudicated. Because our immigration court system is so backlogged, you don’t see a judge for a year, two years, three years, four years, and then—even then—that initial hearing is just that. Just an initial hearing. You know ultimately, you have at least one more hearing. So, the asylum system was essentially operating as a huge pull for both legitimate and illegitimate claims into the United States. Because, you know that, even if you’re illegitimate, that backlog will mean you’re going to be able to be here for a few years before you get kicked out.

“Since the Great Recession, our southern border has become increasingly militarized. It’s not very realistic that you’re going to sneak into the country. It’s far easier to claim asylum at the southern border, which is why an increasing portion of our arrivals at the southern border are asylum seekers, not people who are trying to sneak in and evade detection.

“But then during 2018, the Trump administration puts together all these interlocking policies, after just throwing tons and tons of policies at the southern border to see what sticks [i.e., passes legal tests]. They finally find 3 interlocking policies that lock it up and at least start a decline in the number of arrivals at the southern border. And then the pandemic happens, and the Trump administration gets to implement their dream policy at the southern border that completely shuts off asylum applications. That CDC order alone shuts down a huge ‘pull’ to the United States because the asylum system is no longer an option for the vast majority of migrants. Instead, what we’re seeing is a lot of people again, attempting to evade detection by crossing the southern border, which is extremely difficult and extremely dangerous.

“Even before that we were seeing a rise of unaccompanied child migrants at the southern border. We’re not totally sure why that is, but we fully expect that rise to continue … the incoming administration, has said that they’re going to keep the CDC order in place partially. … I assume that it’s because our resources and procedures at the southern border just completely insufficient to handle these surges. So, my hope is that they’re keeping it in place in order to improve our procedures of the southern border, increase our resources, because they know that they’re going to be facing surges and just, you know, give them a little time to prepare for it. But now it’s looking very likely that they will have a surge.”

“But how can that be?” I’m genuinely surprised. “The pandemic is worse here. The unemployment situation is so bad. And we’re not exactly a welcoming country at the moment. How can people still want to come?”

Pierce recognizes that, but responds, “There’s still a ‘pull’ right now for unaccompanied child migrants, even if not for anyone else. … There’s also a lot of leaders that have used the pandemic as an opportunity to lean into their more authoritarian instincts, so that has caused more of a ‘push’ of migrants. And then of course the two hurricanes [Eta on 11/3, Iota on 11/16] … so we still have a lot of pushes in place.[8] The ‘pulls’ aren’t quite as strong as they used to be, but now we have a president taking office who is supposed to be friendly to immigrants. So, we’re increasingly hearing that smugglers are telling migrants, ‘Show up on January 21st.’”

“When you talk about the mass influx of unaccompanied children”—this is one of those things that sticks with me, and I keep coming back to it throughout the interview—“I mean, are we really talking about thousands of parents sending their eight year olds alone, over the border, with a note saying, ‘I’m seeking asylum—here is my relative who lives in New Jersey?’”

Pierce corrects one misperception: the average age of an unaccompanied child migrant is in their teens, old enough to work a real job and make a way for themselves.

“Still, you must be so desperate to do that,” I insist, thinking of the hopelessness I would have to feel to hand my own children over to men in uniform with weapons who do not want me there, possibly to never see them again.

“Exactly,” she agrees. “And if there’s a system in place that doesn’t allow you to claim asylum as a family but allows your child to enter the United States and claim asylum, then that’s only going to incentivize people. … During the spring and summer of 2018, we had mass family separation at the southern border. Both before and after that, we’ve had for-cause family separation. So, it’s still happening, but on a significantly smaller scale. … His first year in office, it was an extraordinarily low year for apprehensions. We call that the ‘Trump effect.’ We think people were kind of stopped and waiting because of his strong rhetoric on immigration. Then during 2018, you start to see the numbers tick back up. Then starting in March 2018, you can start to see the administration just release a torrent of increasingly controversial policies on asylum and the southern border. … Jeff Sessions issued his memo on zero tolerance and then, maybe a month or two later, they clarified that it applied to families at the southern border. They prosecuted parents. And when they would prosecute the parents, they would separate the parents from their children. The children were re-categorized as ‘unaccompanied child migrants,’ for which we have an entirely separate immigration system and pathway. The parents were kept in expedited removal proceedings, meaning that after their prosecution, typically, they were quickly deported from the country. With the mass public outcry [about kids in cages], President Trump issued an executive order in June 2018, I think, and a judge issued an order about a week later.”

“And the 500 plus kids?” I ask, almost hesitantly, thinking about the parents who still have no idea where their children are. “Has that at all been resolved?

“There were some still in government custody. That was resolved, but then … they realized that they actually needed to also be focusing on children who were separated from their parents before that date. Apparently, there were ‘pilot projects’ and just some shady stuff going on with family separation even before then. But they found that’s a lot harder because that group [of children and parents] has already been separated at this point for, well, now they’ve been separated for several years … and many of the parents deported back to their home countries. So, it’s just a much more difficult problem logistically to reunite and get into any sort of contact with these parents.”

Yet another heavy conversation with someone about an unpleasant part of American life that we try to keep out-of-sight/out-of-mind. I ask Pierce how she holds it together on a daily basis, looking at the desperation of migrant parents and children in the face of an apathetic America that claims to be a beacon of freedom and hope.

“I have definitely not mastered it. My most traumatic moment was that summer of 2018, focusing on family separation every day. I remember coming home and giving my son a bath and just crying the whole time. And then, just last month, there was that huge uproar about the 500-plus kids who still hadn’t been reunited. And then it just sort of seemed—it got overshadowed by the next scandal. There’s a new one every day, right?”


[1] Reuters Staff, “Factbox: Trump Reshaped U.S. Immigration System, Biden Wants to Reverse Course,” Reuters, December 3, 2020,

[2] Danilo Zak, “Immigration-Related Executive Actions During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” National Immigration Forum, November 18, 2020,

[3] “CLINIC Submits Comments in Opposition to USCIS’ New Naturalization Civics Test and Policy Manual Changes |,” Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), December 2, 2020,; “Webinar: A New Life for Asylum, Hope and Challenges for Asylum Seekers under the Biden Administration,” Immigration Justice Campaign, December 8, 2020,

[4] Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, “The ‘Trump Effect’ on Legal Immigration Levels: More Perception than Reality?,” Migration Policy Institute, November 19, 2020,

[5] Personal communication with authors, December 16 and 18, 2020.

[6] TRAC, “The Pandemic and ICE Use of Detainers in FY 2020,” Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, October 19, 2020,

[7] Bridge Initiative Team, “Factsheet: Center for Immigration Studies (CIS),” Bridge Initiative (blog), November 13, 2020,

[8] Reuters Staff, “‘No Choice except to Flee’: After Back-to-Back Hurricanes, Central Americans Go North,” NBC News, December 4, 2020,

Read more
IJC. “Webinar: A New Life for Asylum, Hope and Challenges for Asylum Seekers under the Biden Administration.” Immigration Justice Campaign, December 8, 2020.

Ainsley, Julia, and Jacob Soboroff. “Lawyers: We Can’t Find Parents of 545 Kids Separated by Trump Administration.” NBC News, October 20, 2020.

Dalal-Dheini, Shev. “The Trump Administration Will Inflict More Damage to the Immigration System Before Leaving Office.” Immigration Impact (blog), December 2, 2020.

Reuters Staff. “Factbox: Trump Reshaped U.S. Immigration System, Biden Wants to Reverse Course.” Reuters, December 3, 2020.

Reuters Staff. “‘No Choice except to Flee’: After Back-to-Back Hurricanes, Central Americans Go North.” NBC News, December 4, 2020.

“CLINIC Submits Comments in Opposition to USCIS’ New Naturalization Civics Test and Policy Manual Changes.” Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), December 2, 2020.

“128 Civics Questions and Answers with MP3 Audio (2020 Version).” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, December 15, 2020.

Martinez-Suazo, Sarai. “Timeline of US Naturalization Law/Civics Exam.” University of Virginia School of Medicine, June 2015.

Marquez, Jennifer Rainey. “A Failure to Communicate.” Georgia State News Hub (blog), December 2, 2020.
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