STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
New data from the Census Bureau reveal that population growth in the United States is at its slowest in a century. One of the main reasons is a significant drop in immigration, and that is because some Trump administration policies on both legal and illegal immigration have had an effect, from a dramatic shift in the way the U.S. handles asylum claims at the southern border to new restrictions on who can get a green card.
NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He's in our studios on this last morning of the year. Joel, good morning.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Now, this is very interesting to hear the Trump administration policies have had this measurable effect because the impression we've had is of masses of people arriving at the southern border.
ROSE: Well, that was the big story at the southern border this year - was, as you say, a huge surge of migrants arriving, mostly from Central America - the biggest numbers in a decade - and just the sheer volume of people flooding into our immigration system that was not prepared for them and, you know, some of the dire consequences that we saw as a result. Remember, back in the spring when this migration flow peaked, we were hearing reports of horrible conditions in Border Patrol stations overflowing with migrant families and children. And here's a clip of Kevin McAleenan, who was then the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection back in March.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility. But with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we're seeing at the border, I fear that it's just a matter of time.
ROSE: A total of five children died after being held in CBP custody. That's going back to December of last year. And then that prompted changes in the medical staffing at these facilities. But mostly, this surge of migrants prompted increasingly aggressive efforts and changes in U.S. immigration policy that were designed to discourage people from making this trip.
INSKEEP: I guess we're getting over to the part of the policies that seemed to have had a measurable effect on the population. What were some of those changes?
ROSE: Well, the Trump administration has largely pushed this migrant flow across the border into Mexico. The administration has made it nearly impossible for migrants to get asylum in the U.S. unless they've already sought protection in another country that they pass through on their way to the U.S. And the administration has forced thousands of migrants to literally wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration courts. Close to 60,000 migrants have been sent back under the so-called Remain in Mexico policy to these border towns where they face kidnapping and other dangers.
I talked earlier this year to Linda Rivas. She's a lawyer with a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez.
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LINDA RIVAS: Never have we dealt with clients that are in so much danger. You're representing them, and you know they're going to be back in Juarez, and you don't know if something's going to happen to them while they're waiting for their court, while they're waiting for you to go out there and work on their asylum case with them. Anything can happen. And it's happening.
ROSE: Thousands of migrants have just given up their claims in U.S. immigration court. Others are still waiting in shelters or hotels or squalid refugee camps along the border. The Trump administration says Remain in Mexico is a, quote, "game-changer." It's one of the big reasons the number of migrants crossing the border has been down now for six months in a row, the administration says. And the numbers are roughly back now to where they were before this big surge.
INSKEEP: I guess we should remember 2019 was a whole series of headlines about a whole series of immigration policies. There's so many ways people come to the United States, try to stay in the United States. And at one point, the administration rolled out a proposal to restrict who can get a green card to become a permanent resident. And let's just remember, this would penalize legal immigrants if they've used public benefits.
Ken Cuccinelli, who is a top immigration official, was on this program talking with Rachel Martin, and she reminded him of the words on the - on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty - give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And Cuccinelli revised that statement in the following way.
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KEN CUCCINELLI: Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.
INSKEEP: That's what Cuccinelli said then. That was August. Where's the policy stand now?
ROSE: Well, the final version of that rule, the so-called public charge rule, was published in August. And it was immediately challenged in federal courts across the country, as many administration policies are. Critics say that this rule goes against the will of Congress, which wanted these immigrants and their families to be eligible for benefits; otherwise, they would have made them ineligible. The public charge rule was blocked by federal courts before it took effect. That is where it stands for the moment while these legal challenges play out. But immigrant advocates say this is part of a broader administration push to keep low-income immigrants from coming to the U.S., from staying here long-term and from bringing their relatives here to join them.
INSKEEP: Is it fair to say that these various policies have had far more effect on migration and population than the wall has?
ROSE: Well, I think that is fair to say because very little of the wall has been built so far, just something like 90 miles of new barrier. And, you know, many of that - those miles were replacing barriers that already existed.
INSKEEP: Joel, thanks for your work on immigration throughout the year and for the update today.
ROSE: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.