(CNN) — With Inauguration Day nearing, there’s added urgency within the Trump administration to ram through any last-minute policies that would limit immigration to the United States, according to multiple sources.
For instance, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to ramp up agreements to send asylum seekers to Central American countries, plans that have largely been under the radar during the coronavirus pandemic, according to three sources familiar with the discussions, as well as rules regarding student visas and work permits.
The push is in line with a years-long effort to usher forward a slew of policy changes that have overhauled the US immigration system — and in part, a concession that a new administration is incoming.
“It’s the same thing that happens in the twilight of every administration — you want to finish what you started and give it as much staying power as you possibly can,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates reduced immigration.
Donald Trump’s presidency offered an opportunity to tighten immigration rules and curtail the flow of migration to the United States. Behind that push is Stephen Miller, Trump’s lead immigration adviser and the architect of his hard-line immigration agenda. Immigrant advocates have slammed Miller and the administration for their actions, arguing that the changes have betrayed the country’s posture of welcoming immigrants.
Over the last four years, administration officials, some of whom hailed from groups advocating reduced immigration, have leaned on immigration opponents to discuss policy changes. That continues to be the case now, with more urgency.
“There’s always going to be a higher level of intensity when time is limited,” said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director at NumbersUSA. “There has been constant communication between us and administration officials on what we still want done.”
Vaughan said she’s been in touch with administration officials who are trying to identify any final items that can be finalized before President-elect Joe Biden comes into office.
“People are looking for stuff to do. People are asking, is there anything you think we could make progress on, anything you think needs to be fixed,” Vaughan said. “It’s nothing that’s going to make a difference within two months. People want to know if there are policy changes that can be made, but I think the general view is there is not a lot that can be done.”
It’s common for administrations to try to get pending items across the finish line before a transfer of power, but such moves have the potential of setting up more hurdles for Biden, who’s pledged to roll back Trump immigration policies, many of which have occurred through regulations that can be more arduous to reverse.
In interviews, advocates of reduced immigration — who rallied behind policies and regulatory changes in recent years that drastically limited migration to the US — generally agreed that the administration has succeeded in most of what it set out to accomplish.
“Trump could not have done any better with the regulations they did,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that backs slashing immigration.
Among the policies that have drawn criticism from immigrant advocates are the so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreements.
The agreements — initiated last year — marked a significant shift in US asylum policy as migrants who may have legitimate claims for asylum are sent to other countries to make their cases. The US is in various stages of the agreements with the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but only the agreement with Guatemala was ever really up and running.
DHS is trying to see the agreements come to fruition before the change in administrations, one source said.
Officials acknowledge the devastation to the region caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, but there’s still a desire to try to get the agreements full steam ahead, the source added.
At the start of the pandemic, flights to Guatemala, which began a year ago, were put on pause. But implementation planning for El Salvador and Honduras continued in an attempt to begin to transfer asylum seekers to those countries once conditions allowed, according to a source.
The “reality is” Northern Triangle governments are “going to start to slow roll” the department in an effort to see how the Biden administration will proceed, a Homeland Security official said. “There are too many variables right now: two hurricanes, flash floods, Covid, and you have a transition team waiting in the wings and now the holidays.”
The Biden-Harris transition set up agency review teams, stacked with volunteers, some of whom have previously served in government. The selection of Ur Jaddou, former chief counsel at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, to lead the DHS team appears to signal the incoming administration’s awareness of the hundreds of executive actions the Trump administration rolled out to curtail immigration and the challenge in rolling them back.
“President-elect Joe Biden believes we must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees and asylum-seekers,” a transition official told CNN. “The Biden-Harris agency review teams are laying the groundwork for the Biden-Harris administration to secure our values as a nation of immigrants.”
In the meantime, the Trump administration continues to push out new rules. This week, DHS proposed a rule that bars undocumented immigrants who are ordered to be removed from the US from receiving work permits.
The proposed rule targets immigrants with final orders of removal who have been released from custody under orders of supervision, arguing that limiting work permits reduces “the incentive for aliens to remain in the United States after receiving a final order of removal and to strengthen protections for U.S. workers.”
Under current rules, undocumented immigrants who have final orders of removal and are temporarily released from DHS custody are generally eligible for work permits. This can occur because their countries of nationality will not take them, thereby leaving them no choice but to stay in the US, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
DHS, however, proposes limiting work permit eligibility, unless the department finds that “removal is impracticable because all countries from whom travel documents have been requested have affirmatively declined to issue a travel document and who establish economic necessity.”
There has also been a major push to finalize a rule that takes aim at international students, potentially limiting the length of time students and others can remain in the United States. In September, DHS proposed changes to visas for students, exchange visitors and foreign media. Since then, a “substantial amount of resources” have been put into finalizing the regulation, a DHS official told CNN, pointing out that there has been “tremendous opposition” to the rule.
“The administration is willing to put its nose to the grindstone in the waning days of the Trump presidency to push more proposals,” Reichlin-Melnick said.