Immigration policy and current events

US policies and regulations around immigration, asylum, and refugees have been changing quickly and often confusingly since 2017. Learn about what’s happened in US immigration policy.


girls in detention camp in Homestead, FL
Photo courtesy of the US Department of Health and Human Services

In our long history of welcoming immigrants, there have been periods of exclusion. Always based on fears that were later proved to be unfounded, these periods in US immigration policy are characterized by prejudice and division.

As early as 1790, Americans banned non-white Americans from becoming citizens. Immigration from Asia was controlled during the 1800s. After immigration from Europe grew exponentially in the late 1800s, the United States began to introduce laws limiting some European immigrants. For many years, immigration was strictly controlled by category, and policies changed gradually.

Today’s immigration policy

More recently, global conditions have caused large-scale emigration from Africa, South America and the Middle East. At first the USA responded by expanding the refugee program while increasing security at the US-Mexico border. Since 2016, however, US policies towards asylum seekers and refugees have changed quickly and drastically.

Here is an overview of some immigration policy changes. We will update this page as things change. You can also find recent news about immigration policy and regulations in our immigration news updates and in our COVID-19 updates for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border

Some of the most confusing changes have been to do with new regulations around asylum, because regulations have been introduced and then overturned in the courts. Here are some significant recent changes that are actually in place.

  • Metering
    A system called “metering” means that the USA only takes a small number of asylum applications every day. Thousands of people wait at the border with no way to know when and if they will be allowed to apply.
  • Third country transit
    The United States can say no to asylum seekers from Central and South America who traveled through Mexico, unless they have been refused asylum in another country along the way. Many asylum seekers who are allowed to apply have been sent back to Mexico to wait for their hearing. Others are in detention centers in the USA. Most are families, and children may be separated in some cases.
This chart shows how the numbers of single adults caught trying to enter the USA has sharply decreased and the numbers of families has greatly increased. The change reflects the fact that fewer single males are coming to find work, while large numbers of families are fleeing violence. Figures based on US Customs and Border Protection data and courtesy of Pew Research Center.
  • Asylum Cooperative Agreements
    The USA has made “Asylum Cooperative Agreements” (ACAs) with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to send asylum seekers to those countries. Some asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras have already been sent to Guatemala by US officials at the Mexico-Texas border at El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley. The Department of Homeland Security said that now Mexicans may be sent as well.
  • Interior Repatriation Initiative
    The USA has also made an agreement with Mexico that Mexican law officers will jail or deport migrants before they get to the US border. Finally, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been sending some Mexican asylum seekers back to Mexico away from the border. This is part of a US agreement with Mexico called the “Interior Repatriation Initiative.”

Refugees

Every year, the president of the United States decides on the number of refugees who can come to the USA from other countries. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are about 26 million refugees in the world (excluding the millions more displaced within their own countries). The US president has proposed to Congress that we admit 15,000 of them in 2021.

In 2019, the Administration used an executive order to offer state and local governments the option to refuse to settle refugees in their regions. In January 2020, one state – Texas – took up the option. Within days, however, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the executive order. Read refugee facts and more about resettlement of refugees.

US immigration visas and American citizenship

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to stop non-citizens from certain countries from entering the USA. The travel ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018. The order eventually restricted travel from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela and North Korea. In January 2020, the Trump administration added six more countries to the travel ban: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania were restricted. You can read details and learn about the effects of the travel ban.

The US government is introducing new rules and fees for immigrants applying for visas, work permits, and citizenship. The citizenship application fee will go up by more than $500. USCIS also plans to increase application fees for family-based petitions, adjustment of status, asylum, and travel documents. You can see a full list of the proposed increases. The government is also intending to end fee waivers that allow low-income immigrants to apply without paying fees.

In February 2020, the government introduced a new public charge rule that will make it harder for low-income immigrants to come to the USA to join their families, or to get a green card if they are already here.

Several other visa restrictions have been put in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read about these restrictions in our coronavirus section.

Undocumented Americans

The US House of Representatives has passed two bills that would offer a path to citizenship: one for DACA holders and one for agricultural workers. But it is not likely these bills will be passed by the US Senate.

In June 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) after the US administration tried to close it. The decision will affect the status of the 700,000 to 800,000 DACA holders in the USA. In July 2020, a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo said it would not close DACA, but nor would it allow any new applications.

Learn more about undocumented immigrants in the USA.

TPS and DED holders

The TPS program protects about 317,000 people from 10 countries who are now living in the USA. The US administration has decided to end all TPS programs in 2021, except for South Sudan, which ends in 2022.

The DED program protects an estimated 3,600 people from Liberia who are living in the USA. DED Liberia expires in January 2021, but Liberian DED holders have been given a pathway to apply for citizenship.