LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the early afternoon of Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump won the presidency, students arrived in tears for after-school programming at South Louisville’s Americana Community Center. Edgardo Mansilla, the executive director of the nonprofit that serves hundreds of immigrants and refugees from more than 100 countries, remembers their faces four years later.
"They were told by their classmates, ‘Hey monkeys. Get out of here. Go back to your countries,’” he recently recalled. Now, Mansilla says, that level of animosity defines Trump’s presidency for much of Louisville’s foreign-born population.
“The feeling after Trump became president is hate,” he said. “That is the big difference.”
When Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, after a long ride down an escalator in a skyscraper that bears his name, the most attention-grabbing line he delivered was about Mexico sending criminals and rapists to the U.S. He built his campaign around the promise of erecting a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. In one of his first acts in office, he banned refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations. Then, he spent years attempting to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), railing against migrant "invasions," and enforcing a policy of family separation at the border.
And yet, immigration has not been at the forefront of President Trump’s reelection pitch, which has him warning of antifa, rather than MS-13, invading the suburbs. But those on the frontlines of the battle for immigrant rights are wary of what a second Trump term could bring and even of what the administration may do in the weeks before the election. They’re also hopeful about the promise of a new president they expect to treat foreign-born populations with compassion.
As Mansilla put it, a Biden presidency would be “a little more humanitarian, because the whole Trump approach to life is hate.”
Omar Salinas Chacón describes life under Trump as “a lot of anxiety and not knowing what was going to happen.” Salvadorian-born Chacón is a recipient of DACA, the program which protects some undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Trump first tried to repeal the Obama-era policy in 2017; this summer, the effort was struck down by the Supreme Court. “We really though that morning that the DACA program was going to die,” Chacón said, calling it a “miracle” that the court ruled against the Trump administration. “That’s basically been our lives the last four years. We don’t know what’s going to happen the next second, or the next week.”
Chacón has become a DACA activist that last four years and has lobbied lawmakers in Frankfort about immigration issues, including his opposition to last legislative session’s Senate Bill 1, which would have banned sanctuary city policies across the commonwealth. There are no sanctuary cities in Kentucky.
“They were doing what’s politically expedient for them,” Chacón said of the lawmakers who brought the bill. “They know if they rail against undocumented immigrants, they can score points.”
Refugees seeking protection from violence have suffered under Trump too, with Catholic Charities of Louisville, one of the city’s primary resettlers of refugees, seeing its new client base dwindle in the past four years.
Over the past decade, the organization resettled somewhere between 450 and 700 refugees each year. In Trump’s first year in office, it resettled 470 people. In 2018 and 2019, Catholic Charities resettled 169 and 280 refugees, respectively. In 2020, with the pandemic providing an extra layer of complication, Catholic Charities has resettled only 78 people in Louisville.
Those numbers reflect the trend nationwide. Each year, the president sets a cap on the number of refugees that may be admitted into the U.S. In each of his four years in office, Trump has lowered that number. In 2017, his first year as president, Trump set the cap at 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 President Obama recommended prior to leaving office. Earlier this month, Trump set the cap for fiscal year 2021 at 15,000, the lowest ever.
The drop has real consequences in Louisville, Catholic Charities resettlement director Colin Triplett said. He has seen families separated by the dramatic reduction in refugee admissions from Muslim countries. He regularly hears from employers in food manufacturing and warehousing who depend on foreign-born employees and are having trouble filling jobs. And he’s seen the spirit of the city suffer.
“I do believe that having a diverse community is important,” Triplett said. “You learn a lot from people about their experience and the way they see the world and that’s a contribution to our society as a whole.”
Triplett said the makeup of the refugees who are still allowed to come to Louisville has changed. With limits on refugees from majority-Muslim countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is predominantly Christian, has seen more arrivals. In fiscal year 2020, 70 percent of refugee arrivals in Louisville were from the Central African nation.
In addition to cuts in the number of refugees, the Trump administration has made it harder for foreign workers to obtain work visas. Earlier this summer, Trump signed an executive order suspending new H-2B visas through the end of this year. The move was ostensibly made to ensure jobs remain open for people already in the U.S., rather than go to temporary foreign workers. But the Kentucky Equine Education Project, a lobbying group, said in a press release that the move “is a massive blow” to the Commonwealth's signature industry.
Immigration attorney Duffy Trager has seen the effect of Trump’s harder line on immigration enforcement firsthand. While President Obama emphasized the deportation of people with criminal history and prior deportation orders, Trager said, “Trump’s position is, if we find you we’re going to try to remove you."
“You run into a lot more people who are collateral, just because ICE went to an apartment where somebody used to live and the new person who lives there is undocumented, or someone is riding in the passenger seat," he said. "These are who are just here living their lives.”
As a lawyer, Trager has also witnessed the Trump administration’s failed attempts to change immigration policy, including its move to end DACA, which was struck down on procedural grounds. He said many Trump immigration policies appear to be designed to please his base and seem to have been given very little forethought.
“Family separation is a very good example of that,” he said, citing the zero-tolerance policy that resulted in the forced separation of thousands of migrant families at the border. “There was not a lot of thought put into the psychological implications of a 2-year-old being ripped away from their mother.”