Trump Administration

Trump Is Fighting to Dramatically Restrict Legal Immigration

The president's stance on immigration goes well beyond fighting illegal entry.


|||Oliver Contreras/picture alliance / Consolidated/Newscom
Oliver Contreras/picture alliance / Consolidated/Newscom

From the moment Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office, he has acted deliberately to restrict the number of immigrants coming to the United States. His administration has not only been cracking down on unauthorized entry to the country but also closing off legal avenues for immigration. It initially curtailed admission from Muslim countries and slashed refugees. Now it has turned its attention to family and skills-based categories—without any new congressional authorization.

Trump's first major policy initiative to restrict immigration—the so-called Muslim travel ban—came within months of taking office. He had called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" during the presidential campaign but then bowed to political reality and narrowed the ban to "merely" five majority-Muslim countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen). The executive order also included visa restrictions on two non-Muslim countries, North Korea and Venezuela, but this was almost certainly window dressing so that the ban didn't seem religiously motivated and could pass constitutional scrutiny.

Predictably, the number of immigrant visas issued to nationals of the targeted Muslim countries dropped 84 percent in Trump's first two years as president. Immigrant visas to Iranians fell from 7,727 in 2016 to 1,449 in 2018, a whopping 81 percent drop. Yemenis experienced a 91 percent drop. Even temporary visas for short visits were slashed by similar numbers.

The Trump administration has nearly shuttered the U.S. refugee program. In 2018, only 22,491 refugees were admitted, down from 84,994 in 2016. This was only half of the administration's own low cap of 45,000 for 2018 and below the ceiling of 30,000 for 2019, a historic low that's less than half of what President Barack Obama allowed.

The administration is not just turning away Muslim refugees. Despite Trump's pledge to help persecuted Christians, America admitted only about three dozen Christian refugees from the Middle East in 2018, a number that could comfortably fit in a school bus. The administration argues that it would rather support refugees overseas. But that's just spin: The president's 2020 budget proposes to slash overseas assistance to refugees.

Another move that has reduced legal admissions is a March 2017 presidential memorandum titled the "Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas." As its name suggests, this document is supposed to fulfill Trump's pledge to institute "extreme vetting." Subsequently, in January 2018, the State Department changed its Foreign Affairs Manual to make it easier for consular officers to deny visa applicants on "public charge" grounds, due to a sponsor's income or a belief they might in the future receive some government benefits.

The result of those two actions can be seen in the data. Immigrant visas issued in the "immediate relatives" category (spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens) declined from 254,430 in 2017 to 236,526 in 2018, a fall of 7 percent. Moreover, between 2016 and 2018, immigrant visas issued to the spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens dropped 25 percent. Temporary visas issued to a fiancé of a U.S. citizen fell 29 percent from 2017 to 2018. And immigrant visas denied on "public charge" grounds increased 316 percent during that same time—a gratuitous rate of denial, given that immigrants are generally ineligible for federal means-tested benefits programs until they have been in the U.S. lawfully for at least five years. (And as attorney Susan Fortino-Brown notes, sponsors can be "required to reimburse the government" for any means-tested benefits an alien receives anyway.) Overall, the State Department's "ineligibility findings," which are used to deny visas, increased 39 percent for immigrants and 5 percent for nonimmigrants applying merely for temporary admission between 2017 and 2018.

In other words, Uncle Sam is shutting out people whom American citizens want to marry or spend their lives with or just have come and visit.

And more is to come. Last December, comments closed on a proposed Homeland Security rule that would go much further than the State Department's public charge guidance. If this controversial regulation survives legal challenges, it could reduce legal immigration to the United States by 200,000 a year, roughly a 20 percent drop—even though Congress has declined repeatedly to do so.

The biggest myth of all is that the Trump administration favors "merit-based" immigration. Official government hostility toward international students and high-skilled foreign nationals and their employers has never been greater.

The State Department issued 30,644 fewer F-1 student visas in 2018, an 8 percent drop over the previous year. The total decline between 2016 and 2018 was 108,799 or 23 percent. State Department data make it difficult to know how much of the decline is due to denials, but Indian students are losing interest in U.S. universities, in part due to tighter H-1B visa rules that limit future career options. Canadian universities appear to be the beneficiaries.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has still more plans that could make international students think twice before coming to America. A May 2018 memo on "unlawful presence" would make it more likely for an international student to get deported. That's because under the new policy, if a technical error in a student's status lasted 180 or 365 days, even without the student knowing it, he or she could be barred from the U.S. for three to 10 years without getting an opportunity to fix the problem. The agency may also change policy to allow international students to stay only a set number of years in the country, requiring them to get extensions approved if they wish to continue their studies.

The administration's regulatory agenda also includes plans to eliminate or restrict international students' ability to work after graduation on Optional Practical Training (OPT) in a science, technology, engineering or math field. This despite the fact that a recent National Foundation for American Policy study, conducted by economist Madeline Zavodny, concluded that there's "no evidence that foreign students participating in the OPT program reduce job opportunities for U.S. workers….The OPT program is an important way for the U.S. to attract and retain foreign talent."

In addition, USCIS has implausibly decided that IT services are not important to the country or the competitiveness of its companies. The agency has established far tougher adjudication standards for IT services companies, resulting in denials of 34 to 80 percent of H-1B petitions for new (initial) employment for several well-known companies that perform technical work for American businesses. Peter Bendor-Samuel, founder and CEO of Everest Group, says, "Almost every major U.S. firm is building some form of digital platform so it can enhance its competitive position….The current skill shortages are going to grow as the demand for digital and IT skills explodes. If this administration wanted to harm U.S. competitiveness, then restricting access to this vital labor would be an excellent approach."

The USCIS isn't just denying new skilled visa petitions; it's making it more difficult to renew existing ones. Its adjudicators no longer defer to prior approvals, forcing many longtime visa holders to leave the United States because they can't obtain extensions. Denials and "Requests for Evidence" for H-1B visas have increased since Trump issued his Buy American and Hire American executive order. And employers expect the situation to worsen after an anticipated H-1B regulation will redefine terms like "specialty occupation."

Donald Trump said in his 2019 State of the Union address, "I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally." Two weeks later, USCIS proposed a regulation to rescind a current rule allowing up to 100,000 highly educated spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the United States.

The lesson is clear: Ignore what Donald Trump says and instead watch what his administration does.