Originally Published in Mother Jones
Fernanda Echavarri and Noah Lanard - October 29, 2020
From the moment Donald Trump descended the infamous escalator in 2015, he made clear his intention to terrorize immigrants. Four years later, the enduring images of his presidency were outdoor cages packed with migrant families and kids being ripped from their parents’ arms. Then came impeachment, and COVID, and an economic crash, and election season. Judging by cable news and front-page headlines, immigration had been largely forgotten.
But not by the Mauritanian electrician who was deported after 20 years in the United States to a country that still has slavery. Or the Indian coder afraid to unpack the boxes in his New York apartment for fear that he could be forced out at any moment. Or the Iraqi woman who stopped getting food stamps for her baby in order to preserve her husband’s shot at a green card.
The immigration system, already flawed and arbitrary before Trump, has become something much crueler, with repercussions far beyond the Mexican border.
Congress’ decades-long failure to pass immigration legislation has ceded virtually all decision-making to the president, and so immigrants find themselves at the mercy of whoever is in the White House. This administration has shown them none.
Here, we share the stories—in their own words—of eight would-be Americans who ran into Trump’s crackdown on legal and unauthorized immigration. In some cases, their futures hinge on what happens next Tuesday. For others, the results of the election are moot. It’s already too late.
SHAHAD SARMAD, 26
Lives in: Austin, Texas
As part of an effort to keep out working-class immigrants, the Trump administration issued a rule that blocks people from getting green cards if immigration officers decide they’re likely to use public benefits in the future—to become, in antiquated parlance, “public charges.” The rule has caused many immigrants to unenroll from public benefits. Shahad Sarmad stopped getting food stamps for herself and her baby because she fears accepting them will cause her husband, whom she is sponsoring for a green card, to be labeled a public charge.
Lives in: New York City
Temporary H1-B visas are awarded to highly skilled foreign workers—most of them from India—after employers request to bring them to the United States. But in 2017, Trump made sweeping changes to the program, denying visas at a record rate. Some of the H1-B visa holders being denied, like 38-year-old Vishakh, have had visas for years and have degrees from US universities.
GOURA NDIAYE, 61
Lives in: Dakar, Senegal
Three decades ago, the West African nation of Mauritania stripped many of its Black residents of citizenship. A large group of exiles formed a community in Ohio. The Obama administration allowed them to stay in the country even after they lost their immigration cases, so long as they checked in regularly with their local ICE office and followed the law.
Trump’s ICE upended that agreement and began arresting Mauritanians at their check-ins for deportation—even as the administration cut off trade benefits for Mauritania for failing to eliminate hereditary slavery. Goura Ndiaye was awaiting a hip replacement when ICE took him into custody. He is now suing ICE for medical neglect.
JUAN CARLOS PERLA, 38
From: El Salvador
Lives in: Tijuana, Mexico
After fleeing extortion and threats in El Salvador in late 2018, Juan Carlos Perla, his wife, and their four young children waited in Tijuana for seven weeks before they were allowed to ask for asylum at the US border in early 2019. They then joined the now roughly 68,000 asylum seekers who have been sent back to Mexico as part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which forces immigrants to wait on the other side of the border while their claims are pending in US immigration courts.
REYNA MONTOYA, 29
Lives in: Mesa, Arizona
In 2012, President Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allowing certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to apply for a two-year work permit that also protected them from deportation. More than 700,000 people have since received and renewed DACA. But in 2017, the Trump administration announced it would dismantle the program—a move that was quickly challenged in court. On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s attempt to end the program but sent the matter back to the administration for further consideration.
HÉCTOR (A PSEUDONYM)
The Trump administration has made it nearly impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing violence and persecution to win asylum. Héctor (a pseudonym to protect him from retaliation) came to the border last year to ask for asylum and spent more than a year at an ICE facility in Louisiana before being deported. I spoke to him in September, when he was in Mexico attempting to sneak back across the border.
MASOUD SHAMELI, 34
Lives in: Isfahan, Iran
Following his campaign promise to bar Muslims from entering the country, President Trump enacted a travel ban one week after his inauguration. The policy was blocked in court, as was a second version. But in 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a third ban that restricts travel and immigration from six countries, including Iran.
In theory, the current ban allows for exceptions for people like Masoud Shameli, the son of Iranian immigrants living in Orange County, California. In practice, waivers have often proven impossible to obtain. Here’s Masoud’s father, Reza, and his older brother Ehsan.
MARIA ELENA HERNANDEZ, 60
Lives in: Broward County, Florida
More than 350,000 people in the United States have temporary protected status, a program in which the US government offers relief to immigrants from certain countries who fled civil war, environmental disaster, or an epidemic to live and work here legally. Typically, TPS can be renewed every 18 months, and tens of thousands of people have renewed it multiple times over the last 30 years, planting roots and raising families here. But in his first year in office, President Trump ordered an end to TPS. After a court challenge, the administration said it would extend TPS through January 4, 2021, for the majority of TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan.