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Assessing President Trump's Legacy On U.S. Immigration Policy


President Trump visits South Texas today to highlight a cornerstone of his legacy - immigration and a border wall. From the moment he announced his campaign, he made clear that halting immigration would be part of his political brand. To do that, we're joined by the host of Latino USA, Maria Hinojosa.

Welcome back to the program.

MARIA HINOJOSA: It's great to be back with you, Audie.

CORNISH: And immigration attorney Efren Olivares - he's in McAllen, Texas.


EFREN OLIVARES: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: We're going to get into some of the specific policies, family separation, remain in Mexico and, of course, building of the fence along the border. Efren, I want to talk to you as someone who deals with clients who have been struggling with these policies over the last few years. What's your big takeaway on what this has been like under this particular administration?

OLIVARES: If there's anything that the Trump administration has made abundantly clear is that the motivation behind anti-immigrant policies and practices is not really keeping communities safe. It's not really protecting American jobs. It's not about national security or securing the border. What these policies are motivated by, it's an intent to keep this country as white as it was a hundred years ago. It's a white supremacist ideology that is driving the policies of this administration by white nationalist groups. And we saw that violently last week.

CORNISH: Maria, I want to come to you as well, because no administration, I think, can get an A on the immigration scorecard, right? It's been a struggle clearly in Congress for decades. But for you, what's your big takeaway from the last four years?

HINOJOSA: The last four years really has been a culmination of decades of really inaction by both the Republicans and the Democrats and, frankly, by an increased rhetoric around immigrants and immigration that couldn't be further from the truth. We have this narrative now that we are painted. If immigrants were, for example, invisible to a certain degree, now we are being targeted. Now we are being seen as something that we are not. There is a narrative that this administration, the outgoing Trump administration, has created. And so in many ways, you know, it comes down to communities. Are you talking to the immigrants in your own community and making them understand that you don't see them as a threat, but rather you see them as part and parcel of who we are? So it's been a really challenging, ugly four years, but there is a possibility for people to now take this to heart and make changes.

CORNISH: Efren, I want to bring you in here because you actually represented families who were separated at the border. And here's former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly explaining that program to NPR.


JOHN KELLY: The children will be taken care of, they'll put into foster care or whatever, but the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States. And this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

CORNISH: Efren, just to come back to your work for a second, what do some of these families tell you today?

OLIVARES: Well, a lot of them are reunited with their children, still going, you know, to counseling and dealing with the long-term effects of the torture and the trauma that they were subjected to by this administration. Some of them have been deported, including some without their children. So those cases continue to be litigated now, more than two years, 2 1/2 years later. And it's going to be a - still a very long battle. And the effects, especially on the children, are going to be long lasting.

CORNISH: One of the other contentious policies of this term was ending DACA. That was the Obama-era program that gave a reprieve from deportation to the children of parents who had brought them to the U.S. without documentation. And the Supreme Court struck down Trump's plan to end it altogether, didn't rule out the policy itself. Maria, what do you think is the future of DACA? Is this conversation ongoing or settled?

HINOJOSA: No, no, no, no, no. It's ongoing. Here's the thing - for those of us who have been talking about immigration, reporting on it for, OK, several decades now, what people really have been asking for is comprehensive immigration reform. That meant that DACA was created as a slice to respond to a particular moment, and Barack Obama had to be forced to create DACA. So what now - what people want is actually massive, comprehensive across the board, so that young people who were brought here who are no longer young but part of the DACA program are included in this, their parents, their grandparents, their children. It has to be across the board. And enough with the family separation and the notion of, well, there are good immigrants and there are bad immigrants. It needs to stop.

CORNISH: We mentioned DACA. We mentioned the rebuilding of the fence along the border. I could probably even throw in the travel ban, for example. Maria, just to start, is there a particular policy that you think will leave a mark?

HINOJOSA: I think every single policy that Donald Trump took over the last four years and the rhetoric in the lead up to, so really five years. I don't know how you can kind of say, well, you know, the taking of the uterus is worse than the taking of a child and putting it behind a cage is worse than, you know, losing parents. I mean, we as a country have got to come to terms with the level of dehumanization that we have been experiencing around immigrations for - around immigrants and immigration for decades, but really intensified dramatically so over the last four years.

CORNISH: Efren, can I ask you about the news of the day where President Trump is taking a last look at the progress, so to speak, on a border wall? Is that another kind of part of his legacy? And what does that mean?

OLIVARES: You know, he is ending his presidency the way he started his bid for president, you know, attacking immigrants and using the border wall as a symbol of his white nationalist agenda. It adds insult to injury to come and do it here in South Texas and to showcase the wasted millions and billions of dollars of this project in the middle of the worst pandemic this country has seen in a century, where hospitals here in the Rio Grande Valley are at capacity. And yet here is a president probably not wearing a mask and bragging about his campaign when of waste - that has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars because, by the way, it's us, the taxpayers that have paid for that, not Mexico.

CORNISH: From the Southern Poverty Law Center, immigration attorney Efren Olivares. He's the deputy legal director for immigrant justice there.

Thank you.

OLIVARES: My pleasure. Thank you.

CORNISH: Maria Hinojosa is the host of Latino USA and author of a new memoir, "Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America."

Thank you for your time.

HINOJOSA: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.