Under Trump, hundreds of small changes in immigration rules have had a huge impact

PHILADELPHIA — Immigration lawyers call it the “no-blank-space policy.”

In 2019, the Trump administration imposed a rule requiring immigrants seeking asylum or other humanitarian relief to fill in every space on the application, even if the question doesn’t apply to them. If they leave one spot empty — say, they don’t write down a middle name, because they don’t have one — the document is rejected.

That causes more than delay in refiling. It can derail entire claims and open the door to deportation. Last week two national immigrant advocacy groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop the rule’s use.

But the blank-space policy is no outlier. It’s among hundreds of Trump administration changes in forms, regulations, and fees that appear tiny and technical but that in combination significantly impact the nation’s immigration system. Now, advocates say, it’s up to the incoming Biden administration to identify and undo the often hard-to-catch revisions.

“It’s been a barrage of more restrictive rules and regulations, and even interpretations of rules and regulations,” said David Bennion, a Philadelphia lawyer and executive director of the Free Migration Project, which advocates for fair immigration laws. “It’s been hard to keep track of them all.”

The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, a nonpartisan research agency, tried to count them — and came up with more than 400 changes, big and small. Some are aimed at certain groups, like asylum-seekers, and one is targeted at immigrants from a single country, Liberia.

“If you know anything about the government, you know how slowly it moves, and how difficult it is to get anything through the bureaucracy,” said Sarah Pierce, an MPI analyst and co-author of “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System,” a study that examined scores of Trump revisions. “It’s a testimony to how determined they were. … They pushed boundaries wherever they could.”

The administration’s genius, she said, was ensuring that each slight alteration built upon and reinforced others.

By Jeff Gammage for The Philadelphia Inquirer
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