Donald Trump’s formal ascension to the presidency is still weeks away, but for non-Americans living in America, fears of what he will do once in power mean that many are starting to evaluate their options now. The fate awaiting undocumented immigrants, beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—President Obama’s executive action known best as DACA—and high-skilled workers from abroad remains unclear in the wake of Trump’s election. And uncertainty about the fate of millions of workers also means uncertainty about the economic repercussions of Trump’s inflammatory-yet vague policy prescriptions on immigration, a key driver of the American workforce.
The lack of clarity has left many turning to immigration lawyers not just for their professional services, but also for reassurance. But that can be difficult to provide. “It's hard to know where to start,” says Claudia Slovinsky, an immigration and nationality attorney in New York who founded her firm in 1980. “There's a lot of anxiety out there. We're all human beings, you sort of stretch out to all of these very incredibly awful possibilities, which produces even more anxiety. Everything changed overnight.”
It might be easy to forget that the sitting president has deported over 2 million immigrants, more than all presidents of the 20th century combined. “It's not like things have been great for immigrants in the last 25, 20 years,” Slovinsky explains. “It's not like, ‘Oh man, there were no deportations and now there are going to be deportations.’” But still, Trump’s rhetoric about deportation, immigrants, walls, and religious bans was more incendiary than what most have seen in generations of national politics, leaving many to worry over where the president-elect will draw a line between campaign bluster and actual policy.
There are already millions of people who, for years, have endured America’s long-lasting legal limbo. As they well know, day-to-day life continues, but not without a persisting sense of vulnerability—a fear that the worst possible outcome is always looming. “You'll have a citizen spouse and an undocumented spouse,” says Slovinsky, who had just spoken with a couple in this exact situation. “They’ve been together for 12 years, he's been here for 15 years, they have two kids. These are U.S. citizen kids who are growing up with mixed parents. So you see the fear,” she told me. A lot of that fear, she says, may come from Trump’s rhetoric about deporting 11 million immigrants. “We all knew—at the immigration bar—that it's not a possibility. But people don't know that,” she says.” Is it designed to instill fear? Probably. And does it? Sure.” Accordingly, Slovinsky says the calls, email, and inquiries her firm has received since the election have increased tenfold.
Should President-elect Trump introduce some of the sweeping changes to immigration policy that he promised on the campaign trail—such as deportation forces and religious or social tests—it will not only affect those who already live and work in the United States, but those who also aspire to. Joshua Rolf is an immigration attorney whose Philadelphia-based firm, Green and Spiegel, was founded in Canada. His work involves sorting through the cross-border logistical minutiae of processing non-immigrant and immigrant visas for both businesses and individuals.
Following last month’s election, Rolf also experienced an unusual torrent of inquiries. “I don't think it's much of a coincidence that in the days following Trump's election that I would receive the only calls I've ever received about Spanish-speaking Latin Americans trying to go to Canada.” He attributes this to “the idea of not feeling welcome, not being sure of your future in this country based on the rhetoric that has been thrown out.”
The subtext here is that decisively eliminating existing protections within the U.S. immigration system is not only bad for foreign and undocumented workers, but will likely augur badly for American workers and businesses as well. As companies plan for their future, making an investment in the U.S. workforce may seem less and less like a solid bet given the incoming administration’s posturing about foreign workers. “We work with companies that are trying to set up shop in the United States, that are trying to create jobs,” Rolf explains. “There are certain visa classifications that are specifically directed towards creating jobs.” The idea that the United States may start willfully alienating many foreign workers seems not only counterintuitive to the country’s principles, but also contrary to its economic interest of attracting the best and the brightest workers, he told me. In other words, concerns about immigration and deportations may have already done some damage, at the cost of future jobs.
One reliable feature (and critique) of Trump’s campaign style is that it was often light on policy details. In the absence of specifics, immigrant advocates and attorneys find themselves bereft of ways to actually advise their clients on their futures. “Part of our job is to communicate with people, to help them analyze and help convey to them the risks of their situation,” Rolf explains. “And with so many unknowns it's hard to properly analyze the risk.” He adds that this uncertainty may ultimately impel more undocumented immigrants, out of a sense of self-preservation, to avoid reaching out to advocates and stay put in the shadows.
“Everyone is in a tough place,” says Larry Sandigo, who works with the Florence Project, a Phoenix-based non-profit that offers free legal services to those in immigration custody. “We’re not wanting to give a lot of false hope to our clients. I think it’s not the time to tell people it’s going to be okay. It’s not true, we don’t know that,” he says. “For us, as attorneys, it’s also been a dark period, especially after the first two weeks of the election and the realization that ‘Man, these are people that we care about, these are people whose stories we know and they’re very vulnerable.’”
In the meantime, for attorneys, even the most basic processes involved in the work of negotiating the U.S. immigration system are now not without potential risks. Slovinsky told me a call she had received earlier in the day from a woman who has been in the United States for 20 years. The woman had a sister who is a U.S. citizen and wanted to know if she should ask her sister to file an alien resident petition on her behalf. “Before this election I would have said submitting a petition is completely an innocuous thing, ‘They're not going to come looking for you because your sister petitioned for you,’” Slovinsky says. “But now I have to say, ‘I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball, I don't know what's going to happen. Nobody knows what's going to happen.’”
Hamstrung by the unknown, immigration attorneys have found themselves directing some clients elsewhere for help. Andrea Shuford, who sees a number of humanitarian legal cases cross her desk in Falls Church, Virginia, tells of an increasingly common story featuring families with undocumented parents and children protected (at least for now) by DACA, seeking out safeguards in case the worst should happen. “A lot of immigration centers do ‘know your rights’ presentations and they're happening in the communities, but even us, as immigration attorneys, we get calls from concerned parents asking us, ‘How can I go about setting up power of attorney? Is there a way for me to pre-grant custody to somebody who can take care of my children in case I get deported’?” she says. “ I have to either refer them to another nonprofit organization or to a family law attorney who can help them make these plans or arrangements.”
For some immigration lawyers and clients, another complicating and distressing factor about Trump’s win is the perceived loss of an ally on the federal level in areas that are already hostile toward undocumented workers. Sandigo’s office, for example, operates out of Maricopa County, Arizona, the fourth-most populous county in the United States and home to some of the country’s most vicious anti-immigrant messengers and controversial legislation. While the rhetorical flourishes of the president-elect were nothing new to him, the effect of the election changes the weight of the words. “It feels different when you hear the president-elect saying it,” he says. “Although we knew the state was going to be pretty bad, we had faith that the federal government or the 9th Circuit would intervene. Now that safety valve is gone.”
Once Trump proceeds with a course of action on immigration, strategic clarity is likely to return to the cause for immigrant advocates. “One of the things that a lot of us fear is that it's easier to deport people if you take away their rights to defend themselves,” Slovinksy says. “Nothing's going to happen here without incredible fights. It ain't gonna happen.” Until then, whatever sense of normalcy existed for those with undetermined statuses in the United States—along with those who advocate for them—has vanished.