After President Donald Trump signed two sweeping executive orders on immigration Wednesday, most of the attention was on his plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to hold back money from "sanctuary cities." But the most immediate impact may come from language about deportation priorities that is tucked into the border wall order. It offers an expansive definition of who is considered a criminal — a category of people Trump has said he would target for deportation. Immigration agents will now have wider latitude to enforce federal laws and be encouraged to deport broad swaths of unauthorized immigrants.
Here are some questions and answers about the changes:
Q: Who is considered a priority for deportation?
A: Each presidential administration must decide whom it considers a priority for deportation. Trump's order focuses on anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense, even if the charge has not led to a conviction. He also includes, according to language in the order, anyone who has "committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense," meaning anyone the authorities believe has broken any type of law — regardless of whether that person has been charged with a crime.
Trump's order also includes anyone who has engaged in "fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency," a category that includes anyone who has used a false Social Security number to obtain a job, as many unauthorized immigrants do. Anyone who has received a final order to leave the country, but has not left, is also considered a priority.
Finally, he allows the targeting of anyone who "in the judgment of an immigration officer" poses a risk to either public safety or national security. That gives immigration officers the broad authority they have been pressing for.
Q: Who is considered a criminal?
A: The order defines criminal loosely and includes anyone who has crossed the border illegally — which is a criminal misdemeanor. Anyone who has abused any public benefits program is also considered a criminal under the order.
The Obama administration, which deported nearly 400,000 people per year during its first five years, initially included those convicted of minor offenses such as shoplifting. But it later changed its policy to target primarily those who had been convicted of serious crimes, were considered national security threats or were recent arrivals. By the end of Obama's time in office, around 90 percent of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants were not considered a priority for deportation. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, roughly 820,000 undocumented immigrants have a criminal record.
Q: Who could be affected by this?
A: It's impossible to know how many people will be considered priorities for deportation under the new criteria. Trump's executive order could affect any unauthorized immigrant who is not protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which the Obama administration put in place to give young people work permits and temporary relief from deportation. (Trump has not yet made clear whether he intends to keep that program.) Immigration lawyers have raised concerns that people with no criminal history will be swept up by the large net the administration is casting.
Q: Can the president carry out these changes?
A: The president does have the authority to decide whom should be deported. But it is unclear whether the administration will be able to — or even try to — carry out deportations as expansively as suggested in the executive order's language. First, in order to put the 15,000 additional immigration agents he wants in place around the country and along the border, Trump needs spending approval from Congress. Even then, additional detention centers would be needed.
The most significant hurdle is the tremendous backlog in the immigration courts. Even if immigration officials initiated thousands of deportations immediately, court dates for those immigrants would be at least a year and a half away. Some immigration experts have suggested that Trump will try to push for expedited removals, which would give immigrants less time to find legal representation.
Q: How does this compare with previous administrations?
A: Trump is opening the door to deporting far more unauthorized immigrants than previous administrations. "This is the largest expansion of any president in terms of who is a priority for removal," said Steve Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell University. "Every administration has to prioritize who they will go after with their limited enforcement resources. This goes further than any other president. To make it simple: If someone is here illegally they are targets for removal."