Donald Trump made a lot of immigration and border promises in 2016. How did he deliver?

Daniel Gonzalez and Rafael Carranza, Arizona Republic
·14 min read

On Aug. 31, 2016, Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee for president, delivered a much anticipated policy speech on immigration at a packed convention center room in downtown Phoenix.

For months, Trump had railed against illegal immigration at campaign rallies across the country, promising to build a giant wall along the entire 2,000-mile southern border that Mexico, not the United States, would pay for.

Many expected Trump to pivot away from the hardline rhetoric of his campaign rallies to appeal more to moderate voters headed into the election.

Instead, in Phoenix, Trump doubled down on his hardline rhetoric. His speech portrayed both illegal and legal immigration as a threat to Americans and the nation, highlighted violent crimes committed by immigrants, and largely ignored the contributions immigrants make to the U.S.

Donald Trump made many promises early on: Which has he kept and which is he still working on?

Trump arrives for his immigration speech at the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 31, 2016.
Trump arrives for his immigration speech at the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 31, 2016.

"The fundamental problem with the immigration system in our country is that it serves the needs of wealthy donors, political activists and powerful, powerful politicians," Trump said. "Let me tell you who it does not serve. It does not serve you, the American people."

Trump outlined a detailed 10-point plan to "fix" the nation's immigration system through a series of promises aimed at restricting illegal and legal immigration.

Here are some of the key promises on immigration Trump made during that speech and on the 2016 campaign trail and how he delivered on them in his first term.

Did Trump deliver on border wall?

President Trump partially accomplished his signature campaign promise of building a wall along the entire 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border to stop drugs and people from entering illegally. But it looks different than what he envisioned, and Mexico is not paying for it – taxpayers are.

After he won the 2016 election, Trump abandoned the promise of a solid, concrete wall spanning the entire border, in favor of 30-foot steel slats known as bollards at strategic sections of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Four years later, on the 2020 campaign trail, Trump repeatedly points to hundreds of miles of new border fencing as proof he fulfilled his promise.

Build the wall? Travel ban? Tax cuts?: After Trump's State of the Union, here's where he stands on promises

And U.S. taxpayers are footing the multi-billion-dollar bill. In fact, some scavengers in Mexico are profiting from the resale of old discarded metal fencing being replaced by taller bollard fencing, The Arizona Republic found.

As of Oct. 19, construction crews have completed installation of 371 miles of new 30-foot fencing, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the projects.

The Trump administration says 400 miles of new fencing will be completed by the end of 2020.

Most of the fencing is replacing older lower fencing or vehicle barriers that were easier to climb over or under.

On Oct. 19, the president visited Tucson, about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. During his rally, Trump touted the construction of more than 200 miles of new fencing at the Arizona border. Arizona is the epicenter for border-wall construction. By the time the projects are completed, nearly two-thirds of its 372-mile-long border with Mexico will have new 30-foot bollards in place.

“You have 200 miles, they tell me, 200 miles, I didn’t even know. … That’s a lot of mileage,” Trump told his supporters. “You’re not paying a damn cent for it. All compliments of the federal government.”

In reality, the Trump administration has received or redirected nearly $18 billion for border-wall construction from public coffers. During his four-year term, Congress appropriated more than $4.4 billion dollars for border-wall construction. He also redirected almost $14 billion from the Defense and Treasury departments for construction at the border.

To date, the federal government has awarded 21 contracts valued at $6.9 billion from the diverted military funds to build 364 miles of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the contracting process.

The use of diverted military funds for border-wall construction is now headed to the Supreme Court. The justices will review whether the Trump administration is authorized to redirect funding from the Defense Department for that purpose. However, a stay in the case has allowed the federal government to continue construction, and it’s likely that contractors will complete the planned border wall projects by the time the high court decides.

Did 'catch and release' end?

Trump has had mixed results fulfilling his promise to end "catch and release," the practice of catching immigrants who enter the country without documents and then releasing them with a notice to appear in immigration court at a later date.

As Trump campaigned in 2016, he promised to put an end to “catch and release,” the term his administration also uses to describe the process by which asylum-seeking migrants apprehended at the border are released from the government’s custody, into the custody of relatives and told to appear in court later.

Soon after Trump's inauguration, a large wave of migrant families traveling to the U.S., mostly from Central America's Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, began to materialize, upending the administration’s plans to immediately end “catch and release.”

The families often fled a combination of poverty, violence and persecution in their home countries and sought refuge and asylum in the U.S. Large groups of migrants, sometimes numbering as many as 400 people, crossed the border illegally, sought out U.S. border agents, and voluntarily turned themselves in to custody. By the end of the 2019 fiscal year, agents had processed more than 474,000 migrants traveling as a family along the U.S.-Mexico border.

To cope with the drastic surge in arrivals, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement began releasing thousands of families who surrendered at the border, first to shelters and nonprofits and later to families in border communities.

In cities such as Yuma, local governments and nonprofits scrambled to come up with solutions, including opening emergency shelters or arranging transportation to larger cities in the interior. All the families received a notification to appear in court, usually several weeks later, at that final destination.

Throughout the surge, the Trump administration criticized existing U.S. laws and court orders they routinely described as “loopholes” that acted as pull factors to draw even more migrant families to the U.S.

By Sept. 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would end the practice of releasing Central American families into the custody of relatives in the interior of the U.S., with limited exceptions for humanitarian or medical reasons.

“This means that for family units, the largest demographic by volume arriving at the border this year, the court-mandated practice of catch and release, due to the inability of DHS to complete immigration proceedings with families detained together in custody, will have been mitigated,” then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said. “This is a vital step in restoring the rule of law and integrity to our immigration system.”

By then, the Trump administration had rolled out a controversial program to send asylum seekers to Mexican border cities for the duration of their proceedings, with the cooperation of the Mexican government. DHS expanded the program, called the Migrant Protection Protocols and known informally as “Remain in Mexico,” to the entire U.S.-Mexico border by the start of 2020. Since then, the U.S. has returned more than 68,000 migrants to Mexico, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

In March, on the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration halted nearly all asylum processing.

DHS began to immediately expel migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border under an emergency order by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since March 21, when the order took effect, border agents and officers have turned back more than 204,000 migrants to their home countries or last country of transit.

Did Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, end?

Trump accomplished his promise to end DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by former President Barack Obama. The program offers temporary deportations and work permits to young undocumented immigrants raised in the U.S. who had no way to legalize their immigration status, and therefore are at risk of being deported.

The Trump administration announced in September 2017 that the program was being wound down. At the same time, Trump expressed sympathy for so-called Dreamers, and urged Congress to pass legislation that would provide a pathway to legalize their status.

That hasn't happened.

In a surprise victory for Dreamers, the Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 decision ruled in June that the Trump administration improperly ended DACA, calling the rationale "arbitrary and capricious" without addressing whether the program itself was unlawful. The Supreme Court's ruling allowed the DACA program to continue, but gave the Trump administration the option of again trying to end it properly. DACA remains in place, for now. But the program was curtailed by new rules the Trump administration announced in July that block first-time applicants from applying and makes DACA recipients reapply every year instead of every two years, a sign that Trump would likely attempt again to end the program completely in the future.

Did Trump block US funding for 'sanctuary' policies?

Trump has tried but failed to accomplish his promise to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid to local and state jurisdictions around the country that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities through so-called "sanctuary" policies.

Trump maintains that the sanctuary policies, adopted by Democrat-controlled cities such as Chicago and New York as well as the state of California, have resulted in violent crimes against Americans committed by immigrants who should have been deported. Jurisdictions that have adopted sanctuary policies argue that immigration enforcement is a federal matter and working hand in hand with federal immigration authorities erodes trust between local police and communities with large immigrant populations.

Several court rulings have blocked Trump's attempt to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid to jurisdictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. In June, the Supreme Court let stand California's sanctuary policy, which the Trump administration said in a lawsuit was unconstitutional.

In the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, the Trump administration has launched immigration raids aimed at punishing cities with sanctuary policies, among them Los Angeles and Chicago.

Did he start deporting on 'day one' all 'criminal aliens'?

Trump has partially fulfilled his promise to begin deporting on "day one" the more than 2 million immigrants he said were living in the country without authorization who had committed crimes.

Under the Trump administration, the number of immigrants removed by ICE who had been convicted of crimes or charged with crimes increased each year.

ICE removed 127,699 convicted criminals and 16,374 immigrants with pending criminal charges in fiscal year 2017. The number of ICE removals increased in fiscal year 2018 to 145,262 convicted criminals and 22,796 immigrants with pending criminal charges in fiscal year 2018. The number of ICE removals increased again in fiscal year 2019 to 150,141 convicted criminals and 23,658 immigrants with pending criminal charges. The number of ICE removals of convicted criminals and immigrants with pending criminal charges totaled 486,930 over those three fiscal years, averaging 162,310.

ICE was on pace to remove 649,240 convicted criminals and immigrants with pending criminal charges over four years. Data for fiscal year 2020 has not yet been released. That number is far fewer than the 2 million criminals Trump promised to remove from the U.S.

On Jan. 25, 2017, five days after Trump's inauguration as president, he signed an executive order aimed at expanding interior immigration enforcement. The executive order replaced an Obama-era policy that prioritized the deportations of immigrants who pose public safety or national security threat with a new policy that prioritized deporting all unauthorized immigrants regardless of their criminal backgrounds or ties to the U.S.

ICE arrests increased during the first two fiscal years of Trump's administration, to 143,470 in 2017, and to 158,581 in 2018, but fell to 143,099 in 2019, according to ICE data. ICE arrests fell in 2019 because agents were deployed to the southern border to help the Border Patrol deal with a surge in undocumented immigrants arriving at the border and requesting asylum, ICE said in a 2019 annual report.

Total removals under the Trump administration increased to 337,287 in fiscal year 2018, the most recent year total removal data is available, up from 288,093 in fiscal year 2017. But total removals under the Trump administration remain below the record removals that occurred under the Obama administration, which peaked at 432,281 in fiscal year 2013, according to DHS data.

Did Trump fulfill his travel ban pledge?

Trump fulfilled his promise to stop issuing visas to people coming from countries he said don't have adequate screening. Critics said the travel ban is aimed at blocking people from predominantly Muslim countries.

Two versions of Trump's travel ban initially were blocked by the courts, but the Supreme Court has allowed a third version to stay in effect.

The ban blocks travel for people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and North Korea, and political officials from Venezuela.

In February, the Trump administration expanded the travel ban to include six additional countries. Critics raised concerns that the expanded ban is intended to keep out black immigrants from Africa. The expanded travel ban blocks people from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria from receiving immigrant visas. It also blocks people from Sudan and Tanzania from receiving immigrant visas through a diversity visa program intended for countries that don't send many immigrants to the U.S.

Did Trump reform legal immigration?

Trump has not accomplished his promise of reforming the nation's legal immigration system.

In May 2019, Trump unveiled legislation that would significantly revamp the current legal immigration system into a merit-based system that would mostly award green cards to immigrants based on their education and skills.

The existing family-based system, which Trump derisively refers to as "chain migration," mostly awards green-card visas to close relatives of immigrants who are legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens.

But Trump's proposed legislation never gained traction in Congress, where it was opposed by many Democrats as overly restrictive and by some Republicans as not restrictive enough.

Trump has used his executive powers to find other ways to restrict legal immigration without the help of Congress, said Muzaffar A. Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institutes program at New York University Law School.

His administration has implemented a new "public charge rule" that makes it more difficult for some immigrants who have used public benefits in the past to receive green cards. Critics say the public charge rule amounts to a "wealth test" that discriminates against lower-income immigrants.

The Trump administration has increased vetting of people applying for H-1B visas, which companies use to bring into the U.S. high-skilled workers from other countries, mostly India and China.

Critics say the increased vetting has resulted in a sharp increase in denial rates of H-1B visas, according to Forbes.

On Oct. 7, Trump signed an executive order that announced rule changes to the H-1B program that will further restrict the granting of H-1B visas. The changes require companies to commit to paying hiring salaries to H-1-B workers to de-incentivize employers from replacing American workers with less paid foreign workers. Trump said the policy change is aimed at protecting American workers, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Did Trump limit the number of refugees admitted to the US?

Trump accomplished his promise of admitting fewer refugees into the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the number of refugees admitted each year into the U.S. has fallen to record lows.

In fiscal year 2020, which ended Sept. 30, the U.S. admitted just 11,814 refugees, which was even lower than the 18,000 cap set by the Trump administration, and the lowest number since the modern U.S. refugee program started in 1980.

In comparison, in fiscal year 2016, during Obama's last year in the White House, the U.S. admitted 84,994 refugees.

Trump has proposed reducing the maximum number of refugee admissions in 2021 to 15,000, which means the total could end up even lower.

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzalez@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Did Donald Trump deliver on his 2016 immigration and border promises?