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What Will Trump's Exit Mean for St. Louis' Immigrants and Refugees? 

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Those who were counting the days until Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took office now divide their post-Trump dreams into goals that could be accomplished quickly and those that will take more time.

On the short-term list is undoing the policies Trump created simply by issuing an executive order or reinterpreting existing laws in the harshest light possible. Fortunately for advocates and allies of immigrants and refugees, those orders account for the majority of Trump's most objectionable policies. The Muslim ban was introduced through an executive order. The move to cage children who crossed the U.S. border with their families was an enforcement decision, as were the directions to amp up deportations even hundreds of miles north.

Alex Garcia's situation is an illustration of both the immediate consequences of Trump and gridlock on immigration reform that goes back decades.

"I think we're fighting on multiple fronts," says Cortés, with the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project.

Nicole Cortés and Sara John (green shirt) talk outside the door of the ICE office in St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Nicole Cortés and Sara John (green shirt) talk outside the door of the ICE office in St. Louis.

It was Trump, through an executive order, who led to Garcia receiving a letter three and a half years ago with orders to surrender for deportation. If not for Trump, it's likely Garcia would have been granted permission to stay another year and continue his life until the next renewal. But it was the unforgiving immigration laws that left him vulnerable to the whims of an anti-immigrant president, and those have been decades in the making.

Half his lifetime ago, when Garcia was a teen, he was deported after a failed attempt to cross the border. He was later able to slip across and boarded a train to Poplar Bluff. But that old deportation order remains active today, nearly two decades later. It doesn't matter that his wife Carly is a U.S.-born citizen or that his children are also citizens. It doesn't matter that he and his family paid their taxes, worked, made friends and became respected members of their community. It doesn't even matter that Garcia tried, through an attorney, to obtain citizenship.

The existing laws provide no path for him to clear up that aging misdemeanor without leaving the country. His only option would be to return to Honduras and wait ten years to begin the citizenship process again. With kids who've never lived anywhere besides Missouri, much less in a violence-stricken country like Honduras, Garcia and Carly see that as no option at all.

Immigration attorney Jim Hacking says the U.S. has been stuck in a long-running congressional impasse on immigration reform. The last major changes to the Immigration and Nationality Act occurred nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1996.

As a result, the St. Louis-based attorney explains, "we've had this pendulum swinging from president to president." Each new administration interprets the laws as it wishes.

Now, with Biden taking office, the pendulum is expected to swing again. How far is an open question.

Trump's executive orders are one thing, and Hacking is anticipating that the new administration will file countermeasures almost immediately. "You'll see this flurry of executive orders," he predicts. The bigger unknowns are how long it will take to change practices and whether Biden and a new Congress will move beyond just cleaning up Trump's mess — not that there isn't plenty of work to do on that front alone.

Trump, Hacking notes, installed people who had been on the far-right fringe to run federal agencies. Even when they're gone, it will be difficult to scrub away their fingerprints. As examples, Hacking points to the difficulties international students had in obtaining permission to study here as well as changes to the criteria for people to sponsor family members to join them in the U.S. Under Obama, the spouses of longtime visa holders were allowed to get jobs in the United States.

"Trump came in and said, 'Nope, we're not doing that anymore,' and that just cuts the families' income in half," Hacking says. "It's been little things, like 'What else can we do? Where else can we stick that knife in a little further?'"

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April 14, 2021

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