The long fight toward equality in the U.S. is often recounted by listing banner acts of Congress and the Supreme Court. Every child learns about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But behind those bright headlines, another, less flashy battle for civil rights unfolds. In Executive Orders and court appointments and in the great, hulking machinery of the U.S. regulatory state, presidential administrations have outsize influence over how laws and federal programs are structured, implemented and enforced. While those administrative decisions often take effect without fanfare, they determine how public policy actually works. Who receives benefits and whether marginalized groups truly get equal protection under the law are shaped by the bureaucratic details of rulemaking and lower court injunctions.
For decades, these powerful levers of the federal administrative state have been used to keep people oppressed. Even as Black Americans were waging and winning battles in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s, federal rules prevented them from accessing the same benefits afforded white citizens. A Depression-era pair of federal programs designed to promote homeownership were implemented in a way that effectively excluded Black people from accessing loans. The postwar GI Bill followed a similar path: while lifting millions of white veterans into the middle class by helping them access college and buy homes, the way the law was implemented effectively prevented thousands of Black servicemen from obtaining the same.
Trump’s Administration has been characterized by a similar disconnect. Trump claims to have done more than anyone else for the Black community, citing a low Black unemployment rate prior to the COVID-19 recession and the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill reducing federal prison sentences. But behind the scenes, the Administration has quietly rolled back existing rules and issued new ones that have the effect of eliminating protections and opportunities for Black people, migrants, Native Americans, transgender people and other marginalized groups. Here are 12 examples.
Weakening shields for payday-loan recipients
When Candice Russell needed an unexpected medical procedure in 2014, she had no way to pay for it. She’d recently separated from her husband, and her wages as a Texas bartender weren’t cutting it. So she borrowed $450 from a payday lender. After a year and a half and two subsequent payday loans she had hoped would finally get her out of the red, she realized she was $10,000 in the hole. “Every time I got to a point where I thought I had gotten myself out of it, something would inevitably happen,” says Russell, now 37.
It’s a common experience for low-income Americans: a vicious cycle of using one payday loan to service another. Up to 12 million Americans take out payday loans each year, according to a 2016 fact sheet by Pew Charitable Trusts. The averages describe a borrower who is in debt for five months out of the year and spends $520 on fees to take out the same $375 loan over and over. Black Americans are especially vulnerable: because they are less likely to have stable credit, they are 105% more likely than other Americans to seek these loans, according to Pew.
The Obama-era Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a rule to protect these borrowers, requiring payday lenders to ensure people could repay loans before issuing advances. “I don’t think it’s brain surgery to say that if somebody is in trouble and then you give them a loan and charge them a 390% interest rate [they’ll] end up trapped in debt,” says former CFPB director Richard Cordray.
But the Trump Administration, backed by the loan industry, is trying to repeal the rule, arguing that payday lenders help Americans who need access to emergency cash. Cordray says the repeal will have the opposite effect. “This is one of the most glaring examples of how this Administration’s focus has been on protecting financial companies at the expense of consumers.”
Shutting transgender people out of housing
In May 2019, Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a new rule allowing federally funded single-sex and sex-segregated homeless shelters to deny entry to transgender people on the basis of privacy, safety, practical concerns or religious beliefs. The proposal weakens an Obama-era requirement that shelters accommodate trans individuals. Shelters could also use the Trump rule, which has not yet been finalized, to require trans women to share bathrooms and sleeping quarters with men.
LGBTQ advocates say the impact would be profound: roughly one-fifth of transgender Americans have experienced homelessness, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Black trans women are particularly at risk of violence, especially when living on the streets, says Kayla Gore, a Black trans woman and an organizer at the Transgender Law Center.
In 2019, at least 19 Black transgender women were violently killed, according to the Human Rights Center. Gore, who has been homeless and was stabbed in 2013, says HUD’s proposal is not one to overlook. “[It] sends a message to people who have ill will toward us that we’re not protected [and] that our lives hold no value,” she says.
Working to block access to birth control
Contraceptives treat medical issues like ovarian cysts and reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Certain types, like IUDs, can cost as much as $1,300 to insert. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued guidance requiring insurers to cover contraception, but rules pushed by the Trump Administration would expand exemptions for employers who object on religious or moral grounds. If Trump prevails in an upcoming Supreme Court decision, more than 100,000 women could lose access to their birth control.
Constructing new barriers for migrants
Getting a green card is likely getting harder—especially for people from poor countries. In January, a divided Supreme Court gave the Trump Administration permission to enforce a new rule that gives U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers greater authority to deny certain green-card and visa applicants who have limited financial resources.
Since 1999, an individual who was “primarily dependent” on the government to sponsor their income or to pay for their institutionalized care has been considered a “public charge.” Federal officials would consider that dependency when deciding whether to allow them to live in the U.S. But the Trump Administration has made that rule even more stringent, expanding the definition of a public chargeto include applicants relying on combinations of certain benefits like Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance for more than 12 months in a 36-month period, and even those whose circumstances suggest they may need aid in the future.
Many migrants who applied for green cards after Feb. 24, 2020, will be scored on their English, educational attainment, health and income. Factors like medical conditions could be weighed negatively against an applicant, while an income of at least 250% of the poverty line would be weighed in a household’s favor. Refugees and asylum seekers would not be subject to the guidelines, but confusion surrounding the rule change has led some migrants to shun government services altogether. Experts say this may have resulted in immigrants’ going without necessary COVID-19 treatment.
The policy change seems to give broad new discretionary powers to immigration officers over who does and who does not get to lawfully live in America. It’s too soon to tell how many migrants will be denied green cards as a result of these new criteria, but the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) projects the rule will have an outsize effect on those from poor countries with predominantly Latino populations. While just 27% of recent green-card holders from Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand would have had two or more negative factors, 60% of recent green-card holders from Central America and Mexico would have as many. “I would assume, based on what I’ve observed and heard under [Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken] Cuccinelli, that USCIS would take a hard line on this and that the adjudicators would be issued instructions to deny based on public charge tests wherever possible,” says Randy Capps, MPI’s director of research for U.S. programs.
Poor migrants who applied for green cards after February are waiting with bated breath—and hoping that he’s wrong.
Limiting access to food stamps
In the midst of a pandemic that has so far claimed 120,000 American lives and 45 million American jobs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doubling down on an effort to implement a rule change that would kick 688,000 people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.
Since 1996, SNAP has limited most able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of food stamps within a three-year period unless they have a job or are in a work-training program. But for areas experiencing high joblessness, there’s long been a workaround: states can grant regional waivers exempting people from the work rule. Over the past 22 years, every state except Delaware has used these waivers to keep residents fed. But in December, the Trump Administration finalized stricter criteria for waivers, requiring that a region’s average unemployment rate be at least 6% for the previous 24 months, and at least 20% above the nation’s average, to qualify.
Citing COVID-19, a judge blocked the change, but the USDA appealed in May. If the USDA prevails, the stricter rules wouldn’t start until the public-health emergency ends—but that could be long before the economy rebounds. “If they had any decency or compassion,” Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge said at the time, “they would abandon this appeal immediately.”
Pushing to reduce access to future benefits
The federal poverty line for a family of four is $26,200, but in 2019, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget issued a notice that it was considering changing how inflation calculates into the measure. One suggested change would slow the growth of the federal poverty line over time, stripping millions of low-income Americans, including seniors and people with disabilities, of benefits like Medicaid and prescription-drug funds over 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Trying to tie access to basic health care to work
Styna Lane suffers from chronic illnesses that leave her susceptible to joint dislocations, fainting spells and anaphylactic reactions. The 29-year-old from Ohio requires a chest port and relies on Medicaid to cover her prescriptions and treatments, which total more than $4,000 a month. But starting next year, she could lose her Medicaid coverage.
The Trump Administration invited states to apply for waivers that allow them to tie coverage to work requirements, and over a dozen, including Ohio, have done so. Though people with disabilities should be exempt, some who suffer from chronic illness are in a gray area. “I know people will combat it with ‘Well, if you’re genuinely that ill, you’ll have no problem getting the exemption.’ But that’s just not how our system works,” says Lane, who was previously denied a disability exemption for food stamps. “Unfortunately, a lot of people slip through those cracks.”
The Administration says the work requirements will improve the health of recipients and help them “rise out of poverty and government dependence.” But research from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that most people on Medicaid who can work already do: 63% of Medicaid recipients ages 19 to 64 have jobs. An additional 12% are caretakers, 11% are disabled, and 7% are students. For the most part, those who fall outside those categories face significant barriers to getting work, such as lack of transportation, education or Internet access. Intent aside, Lane says, the message in making Medicaid conditional is crystal clear: “[It indicates] that I’m only worth as much as I could contribute in a standardized financial sort of way.”
From 2018 to 2020, courts have blocked the Medicaid work requirement in four states. Some courts have ruled that it defeats the primary legislative purpose of Medicaid, to provide health coverage to the poorest Americans.
Most states have put the work requirements on hold, pending the outcome of multiple court battles.
Shifting an additional burden to rape survivors
About 21% of women reported being sexually assaulted during college, according to a government-funded study of the 2014–15 school year. But this spring, even as COVID-19 shut down campuses, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos finalized regulations that may lead fewer survivors to report attackers to their schools. Under the updated rules governing Title IX, institutions have less legal liability for campus assault and harassment and will be required to allow both parties in a case to undergo cross-examinations at a live hearing.
Blocking trans troops from the military
With a trio of tweets in 2017, Trump declared he was rolling back an Obama-era policy that permitted transgender Americans to openly serve in the military. The Armed Forces “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption,” Trump wrote.
But implementing the new policy turned out to be more complicated than posting it on social media. What ensued was a series of court orders that barred the change. The Administration pushed forward anyway and was granted approval from the Supreme Court to proceed on an interim basis. Now anyone who has medically transitioned or is currently transitioning is disqualified from enlisting. Individuals who are currently serving in the military but were diagnosed with gender dysphoria after April 2019 must serve in the sex they were assigned at birth, seek out a series of complex waivers or leave. (The policy exempts existing service members who transitioned before the rule went into effect.)
House Democrats have challenged the rule—as has public opinion: 71% of adults now support the right of openly transgender people to serve, according to Gallup.
Reducing Native Americans’ land
Since taking office, Trump has consistently sided with the oil and gas industry over environmental and Native American interests. In December 2017, he backed local Republican officials and cut the size of a Utah land monument by 85% to cultivate it for recreation. Multiple Indigenous tribes claim roots to the land. The same year, the President issued an Executive Order revoking a tribal advisory council’s power in decisions impacting part of the Bering Sea. “The message,” says Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund, “is that Native American priorities were not important.”
Deterring travelers from predominantly muslim countries
Judges blocked Trump’s first two efforts to enact broad travel restrictions on countries with large Muslim populations, ruling that the President’s moves likely violated federal immigration statutes. But in June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Trump’s third attempt, allowing him to impose travel restrictions on individuals from seven countries, five of which have Muslim majorities.
Since then, the U.S. State Department has all but stopped issuing visas to people from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. (The ban also applies to North Koreans, who are mostly unable to travel to the U.S., and a handful of Venezuelan officials and their families.) The Trump Administration says the travel restrictions were necessary to secure America’s borders.
But critics say the move was designed to paint Muslims as uniquely threatening in a country where right-wing terrorists have been responsible for more deaths since the 9/11 attacks than jihadists. The new restrictions also affect the communal aspect of the Islamic faith, says Robert McCaw of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There are many inter-generational households that are disrupted when children cannot connect with grandparents, aunts and uncles,” he says. “And that is an attack on the family structure of Muslims in America.”
Obstructing access to abortion
While the U.S. awaits a Supreme Court decision, expected this summer, that will determine whether it was legal for Louisiana to impose severe restrictions on abortion providers, social conservatives already have something to celebrate. In February, a U.S. appeals court ruled in favor of a new Trump Administration regulation that forbids family-planning centers that receive federal funding to refer pregnant women for abortions. The funding program, called Title X, provides patients with affordable access to birth control, HIV tests and cancer screenings.
As a result of the policy change, scores of clinics have left Title X in protest. Critics argue the new rule imposes bureaucratic hurdles on patients who rely on the program, 22% of whom are Black and 33% of whom are Hispanic or Latino. “Your access to reproductive health care depends on your ZIP code, depends on your income and depends on a host of factors that are beyond your control,” says Gretchen Borchelt of the National Women’s Law Center. “The Trump Administration’s attacks are just making that worse.”
With reporting by Haley Sweetland Edwards and Julia Zorthian
This appears in the July 06, 2020 issue of TIME.