Blog post written by Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales (Temple University) who will both chair and present on the ‘Mass Migrant Flows, International Obligation and Internal Resistance: Trump’s Executive Orders in Critical Perspective’ panel at the upcoming RLI 2nd Annual Conference. The full conference programme is available here.


In its first 100 days, the Trump administration has enacted dramatic political theater and rhetoric as well as harsh new policies targeting refugees and migrants in the United States.  Immigration restrictionism was a – if not the – central plank of Trump’s campaign.  Within a week of his inauguration, Trump promulgated three Executive Orders aimed at preventing the entry of asylum seekers from Central America and refugees from Syria.  Though immigration has long been a controversial political issue in the United States, the protection of refugees has historically garnered bipartisan political support.  How did we get here from there?

Part of the answer lies in political responses to perceived mass influxes of migrants seeking protection.  The popular growth of anti-refugee sentiment in the United States began with the “surge” of Central American women and children seeking protection at the southwest border in 2014.  Migrant flows from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala had been growing steadily throughout the Americas since 2009, as children and families sought protection from increasingly unsustainable levels of gang violence in those countries.  In 2014, the Obama administration began to engage in a harsh policy of deterrence, including detention of mothers and their children fleeing gang violence.  Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson bluntly stated, “Our message is clear to those who try to illegally cross our borders: you will be sent back home.”  Though the numbers of Central Americans at the southwest border increased relative to earlier years, the absolute numbers – fewer than 150,000 family units and unaccompanied children – represented approximately 0.04% of the U.S. population.  In other words, the perceptions of masses of migrants at the southwest border loomed larger in the public imagination than in reality.

Under the Trump administration, the response was even more draconian, taking the form of two Executive orders promulgated on January 25.  The first, on “border security,” seeks, among other horrors, to build a wall at the southwest border; to increase detention of asylum seekers; to return asylum seekers to Mexico for processing; and to expand the geographic and temporal scope of expedited processing of undocumented migrants, including asylum seekers.  The second, on “interior public safety” authorizes increased prosecution of undocumented entrants, including asylum seekers.

The other mass influx that prompted irrational and disproportionate legal and policy responses did not even manifest at the U.S. border, but rather at the borders of Europe.  In particular, the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, inaccurately attributed to Syrian refugees, prompted then-candidate Trump’s proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  Mike Pence, who was then governor of Indiana, led a charge that eventually included thirty-one governors of U.S. states aiming to prevent Syrian refugees from being resettled in their states. Legal battles ensued, but these were the first steps towards the infamous “Muslim ban”: the January 27 and March 6 Executive Orders (challenges to which continue to work their way through the courts).  This chain of events demonstrates the nearly unstoppable force of the imaginary of mass influx: a group of migrants seeking protection at the borders of European countries, thousands of miles away, and wrongly blamed for a terrorist attack, became fodder to justify an effort to shut down the U.S. refugee resettlement process.

Where do we go from here? Shifting the public imaginary with respect to mass influxes of migrants will require creative local and transnational responses.  Law will play a role, particularly in its expressive function, but today’s deeply turbulent political environment demands solutions that reach beyond law and across borders.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.