How Clinton and Trump’s Immigration Policies Line Up for Asian Americans

Photo by Frank de Kleine via Flickr/Creative Commons.
The president alone may not rewrite immigration laws—but importantly, he or she does have a lot of latitude to determine how federal agencies ought to prioritize their enforcement of existing laws.

It may not be possible to tell from the elections discourse on display at the moment, but there are real issues at stake in this presidential election. Among them are questions over how the country will handle immigration—easily one of the thorniest topics the country faces. How will the new president guide policy, which could affect millions of immigrants—both those with and without papers? Here now, a breakdown of how the two top candidates for president have proposed to address immigration with a special focus on what it could mean for Asians and Asian Americans.

A note about these policies: they are as of right now just proposals. The president alone may not rewrite immigration laws—but importantly, he or she does have a lot of latitude to determine how federal agencies ought to prioritize their enforcement of existing laws. Still, many of these proposals are subject to approval by Congress, and this roundup doesn’t cover the political or practical feasibility of these proposals. But it does make clear where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand on this key issue.

Hillary Clinton


Hillary Clinton’s proposals are far more wide-reaching, but  she, like President Barack Obama, has maintained that the best and only way to fix the immigration system is through comprehensive immigration reform. Such a fix would require the backing of Congress, and that has been a tough sell for the last decade. Her rhetoric and general outlook is a huge departure from Trump’s; Clinton maintains that immigrants enrich the United States’ culture and economy, and that law-abiding immigrants ought to be welcomed into the country.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Clinton has pledged to introduce comprehensive immigration reform in her first one hundred days in office. Her reform package would include fixes for the most broken parts of the current immigration system. She has proposed addressing the long wait times for immigrant hopefuls. Lines which, for those from the Philippines, can stretch into the decades. Most importantly for those already here, Clinton has proposed a system to deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, which includes allowing some to get on a pathway to citizenship. Her plan would also very likely include increased resources for border security and immigration enforcement.

How it could affect Asians:

Asians are 1.6 million, or 14 percent of the undocumented population, by some estimates. Comprehensive immigration reform, which would lay out a path through which those immigrants could become authorized, would be a life-changing boon to many.

But comprehensive immigration reform is always a complex undertaking, and over the last decade and a half, Congress has repeatedly attempted, and failed, to pass anything through both houses. Lawmaking is an iterative process, and comprehensive immigration reform is a prime example of that. Every previous bill is a jumping off point for lawmakers to begin their negotiations. What’s key for Asians to understand is that If Clinton were to use as a jumping off point the most recent immigration reform bill which cleared the Senate, S. 744, her proposal would seriously impact Asian Americans and hopeful Asian immigrants.

  1. 744, which the Senate passed in 2013, attempted to deal with the decades-long backlogs in the immigration system by replacing a family-based system, which allows U.S. citizens to sponsor their close family members for immigration, with a points-based system. Asian immigrants have been key beneficiaries of the United States’ existing family reunification system, and S. 744 would have eliminated that.

End the three- and ten-year bars

Immigration law actually discourages a person who is in the United States without papers from pursuing lawful permanent residence through marriage or other family relationships from doing so because of a punishment known as the “three- and ten-year bar.” A person who’s eligible for a green card through their spouse or family relationships must leave the United States to apply for it. But, the law immediately bars that person from re-entering for three or ten years. What it means is that thousands of people who would otherwise qualify for green cards live instead as undocumented immigrants because the threat of being separated from their families for such an extended period of time is too large a punishment to stomach. Waivers are available, but very hard to come by. Hillary Clinton has pledged to end this bar.

How this could affect Asians:

This proposal would benefit Asians. Currently, undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders who leave the U.S. are banned from entering the country for three- or ten-year spans when they try to get back in.

Detention and Deportation

Hillary Clinton has pledged to end family detention and close privately run detention centers. Immigrant detention centers are scandal plagued and notoriously dangerous places. But it’s not just those who are being processed for deportation who are there. In recent years, immigrant detention centers have been holding places for those who present themselves at the U.S. border to seek asylum in the United States. Clinton has pledged that those who “seek asylum in the U.S. have a fair chance to tell their stories .”

How this could affect Asians:

South Asians seeking asylum in the United States have been held for long periods of time, and by some reports indefinitely, inside immigrant detention centers. (This BuzzFeed report details the treatment of Sikhs from India fleeing political repression who have been held in detention centers despite meeting the criteria for release into the U.S.). Nearly a year ago, detainees at detention centers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal staged hunger strikes to protest this treatment. Clinton’s promises to allow asylum seekers the chance “to tell their stories” suggests that she would listen to these detainees, but she makes no promises that they would actually be treated differently than the Obama administration is currently treating them.

Most importantly, Clinton has run her campaign on the promise that she’d uphold the legacy of the Obama administration, and if voters are to take her at her word, there’s little evidence that she would treat asylum seekers that differently than President Obama has.

Uphold Deferred Action for DREAMers

Hillary Clinton has promised to protect and uphold President Obama’s two major immigration actions which give short-term deportation deferrals to some undocumented immigrants who 1) came here as children or 2) are the parents of U.S. citizen or green-card-holding kids. The first is still in effect, while the second, concerning parents, is held up in a legal battle. (Trump has announced that he would dismantle these programs immediately.) DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has granted some 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children short-term reprieves from the threat of deportation as well as work permits.

How this could affect Asians:

Asians are a key segment of the undocumented population. They happen to be under-represented among the ranks of DACA recipients, though, with only one-third of eligible Koreans have applied for DACA, and less than one-fifth of eligible Filipinos have applied. But, for those who have taken advantage of the program, nearly 70 percent are employed in jobs with better pay as a result of their new work permits, according to a survey conducted by the liberal Center for American Progress. This program is central to ensuring the short-term futures of undocumented young people, and Asians are among them.

Donald Trump


Trump’s proposals are focused pretty narrowly on how to punish and deport those who are in the country without papers. He’s also spoken about reforming the system which determines avenues for legal immigration, with an eye toward lowering those flows.

Ending Birthright Citizenship

Birthright citizenship is a constitutional right, which gives any baby born in the United States automatic citizenship. Trump has called it “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” It is a right that is central to the United States, and dismantling this right would require a constitutional amendment, as it would seek to repeal the 14th Amendment. The constitutional basis for this right was interpreted by the Supreme Court in an 1898 case (U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark) that actually concerned a Chinese immigrant. The Supreme Court, facing the question of whether a Chinese American baby born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants was in fact a U.S. citizen, ruled that babies born in the U.S., regardless of the citizenship of their parents, are U.S. citizens.

How this could affect Asians:

According to some estimates, about 300,000 children are born every year in the U.S. with at least one parent who’s undocumented. Repealing birthright citizenship, or limiting it just to babies with two parents who are U.S. citizens, could double the undocumented population in the U.S. from an estimated 11 million today to an estimated 24 million. It’s hard to say exactly how many of those babies would be Asian, but what is clear is that talk of repealing birthright citizenship has come as a direct response to anger about purported “birth tourism” on the part of Chinese women.

Early in the Republican primaries, Jeb Bush, in trying to explain the derogatory phrase “anchor babies,” called out Asian women in particular who he said are “coming into the country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept.” (For the record, Bush does not support repealing birthright citizenship.) Asian women in particular have been the targets of efforts to repeal birthright citizenship.

Deportation and Criminal Deportation

This is perhaps where Trump’s policy proposals are the most robust. Trump has single-mindeldy focused on immigrants who commit crimes—even though a robust body of research has found that immigrants not only do not commit more crime than native-born Americans, and that their presence may even make localities safer.

Trump has proposed withdrawing federal funding for “sanctuary cities.” Sanctuary cities are municipalities where local law enforcement agencies keep a strict separation between their law enforcement duties and federal immigration enforcement activities. That means that such cities do not hand over someone who may be undocumented to federal immigration authorities unless that person has been convicted of a serious crime.

He has also proposed tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and increasing the penalties for people who overstay their visas.

He has proposed moving “criminal aliens out day one,” and making their removal mandatory and immediate. And perhaps more powerful than his suggested policies is his rhetoric. In fiery speeches over the last year and a half, Trump has sought to pin undocumented immigrants as murderers, rapists, and drug dealers.

How it could affect Asians: While much of the conversation in the U.S. around immigration and criminality centers around Latino immigrants, criminal deportation affects Asians. For example, under current law, anyone who is not a citizen but who has been convicted of any of a wide class of crimes (including possessing anything more than or besides 100g of marijuana) is deportable. This goes for green-card-holders as well. This current law has meant that Asians of all nationalities have been deported even if they came to the U.S. as children, even if they came to the U.S. fleeing wars in their home countries, or even if their convictions are decades old and they’ve since cleaned up their lives. As it is, 12 percent of those deported by the Obama administration have been from Asian and Pacific Islander nations, according to the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. That’s 250,000 people. Under a Trump presidency, that number would likely increase. This is a policy change which would affect all Asians who are not citizens and who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Increasing pay requirements for H-1B visa holders

Donald Trump, in an effort to protect American workers from competition, has proposed a policy which would likely discourage companies from turning to the H-1B visa program to supply employees. H-1B visas are intended for highly educated professionals, like doctors, researchers, and programmers, with specialized skills. Trump has proposed increasing the “prevailing wage,” which is the salary floor that companies are required to pay H-1B workers. Increasing the salary floor would likely discourage the use of H-1B workers and incentivize companies to turn to American labor for its software engineers, chemists, and financial analysts.

How it could affect Asians:

This proposal is less discussed, but of enormous importance for Asians, who constitute the bulk of the beneficiaries of the H-1B system. India, China, the Philippines, and South Korea make up four of the top five countries feeding H-1B visa holders to the U.S. The H-1B system is also a large vehicle for Asians to enter the U.S.; many H-1B visa holders bring over or start families in the U.S. and some are able to convert their visas into green cards, which can put a family on a long-term path to citizenship.

Asylum-seekers and Refugees

Often referred to as a “Muslim ban,” this proposal of Trump’s is fuzzy on specifics, but clear in its intent: to target Muslims and those from predominantly Muslim countries who he sees as potential terrorists. Recently, Trump has suggested that such a ban would begin with “extreme vetting” of hopeful refugees, which could include a religious test for those who seek to enter the U.S. He has also proposed suspending the processing of visas for those from countries where “adequate screening cannot occur.”

“But I don’t want to have—with all the problems this country has and all of the problems you see going on, hundreds of thousands of people coming in from Syria when we know nothing about them,” Trump said at the second presidential debate. “We know nothing about their values and we know nothing about their love for our country.”

How it could affect Asians: While Trump’s so-called Muslim ban would likely target those fleeing Syria and other nations in the Middle East, two-thirds of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia. Such a faith-specific vetting process could certainly impact those who may need to flee their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S. The policy would also further cement the myth that adherents of Islam threaten U.S. national security, and that Muslims are to be feared.

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Julianne Hing is a contributing writer at The Nation, where she covers elections and immigration. She’s also contributed reporting to the WNYC podcast The United States of Anxiety. She blogs very occasionally from her New York City kitchen at