With Trump At The Border, A Look Back At U.S. Immigration Policy

President Trump traveled to a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, today, continuing on his campaign to drum up support for a $5.7 billion border wall. The visit came after weeks of Congressional debate about border security that has resulted in a partial government shutdown.

In his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump described a “humanitarian and security crisis at our Southern border,” and focused on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

But as NPR has previously reported, studies show that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans.

This fight over the border wall is just one part of the Trump administration’s hardline stance on immigration. He’s ended DACA, and pushed to make it harder for people to apply for asylum or to get greencards. He also tried to terminate the Temporary Protected Status program, which was designed to help people affected by environmental disasters or armed conflicts.

So we’re revisiting this interview with Hiroshi Motomura, an expert on refugee and immigration law who teaches at UCLA Law School. The subject of immigration isn’t merely academic for him. He comes from a family with mixed immigration statuses (he himself was declared “stateless” at one point,) and has spent decades researching, and living, the shifting fortunes of immigrants and their families.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trump At The Border

Supporters of immigrants’ rights have criticized President Trump for saying he wants to limit family-based immigration. These critics have compared his policy proposals with parts of the Immigration Act of 1924, which had a national origins quota, or the Chinese Exclusion Act. Is that a fair assessment?

There’s a couple ways to think about the legislative proposals coming out of the White House. We’ve had a system for many years that has put a high value on family unity. So the proposals would seriously cut back on that.

What does that actually mean? Since 1965, we have family-based immigration playing a central role, as it always has, but a central role in a non-discriminatory system — at least as far as the legal categories are concerned. That’s meant that we’ve really diversified who can come to this country.

So now, the administration is trying to cut that back. One way to think about that is to look at the consequences: This would really make it hard to immigrate from Latin America. You’d have cutbacks in immigration from Latin America, you’d have cutbacks from Asia. The proposals to cut back on the diversity lottery would cut off a significant amount of immigration from Africa. So at one level it looks like it’s very neutral. But the fact is, in historical terms, it’s really a rollback to the period from the 1920s until 1965.