Posted on July 3, 2018

How Trump Is Changing the Face of Legal Immigration

Abigail Hauslohner and Andrew Ba Tran, Washington Post, July 2, 2018

As the national immigration debate swirls around the effort to discourage illegal immigration by separating families at the border, the Trump administration is making inroads into another longtime priority: reducing legal immigration.

The number of people receiving visas to move permanently to the United States is on pace to drop 12 percent in President Trump’s first two years in office, according to a Washington Post analysis of State Department data.

Among the most affected are the Muslim-majority countries on the president’s travel ban list — Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya and Somalia — where the number of new arrivals to the United States is heading toward an 81 percent drop by Sept. 30, the end of the second fiscal year under Trump.


Legal immigration from all Muslim-majority countries is on track to fall by nearly a third.

The Trump administration has argued that its immigration policies are driven by national security concerns and an effort to preserve jobs for Americans.


Some public officials and immigration experts have raised concerns that the administration’s approach targets certain nationalities, discriminating against those from poorer and nonwhite countries.

The Post’s analysis also found immigration declines among nationalities not targeted by Trump’s travel ban, including nearly all of the countries that typically receive the largest number of immigrant visas from the United States. The number of immigrant visas granted to people from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, Haiti, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Pakistan and Afghanistan has also declined. Among the 10 countries that send the highest number of immigrants to the United States annually, only El Salvador is projected to receive more visas under Trump: an increase of 17 percent in his first two fiscal years.

The number of immigrant visas approved for Africans is on pace to fall 15 percent.

Meanwhile, the flow of legal immigrants from Europe has increased slightly, though the total number of visas is still much smaller than that from Africa, Asia and Latin America.


The shift in legal immigration is a reversal of the trend under President Barack Obama. During Obama’s time in office, immigrant visas increased by 33 percent, surging to 617,752 in fiscal 2016, the highest level in decades.

That surge occurred almost entirely in the last two years of Obama’s presidency. Despite declines since then, the Trump administration still will be providing more immigrant visas than Obama did in earlier years of his presidency.


His stance on immigration fueled his rise to the White House; 64 percent of voters who identified immigration as the most important issue facing the country voted for Trump, according to exit polls.

The economic effect

Trump has said he wants additional limits on immigration in part because he believes new arrivals create undue competition for American workers.

But some of Trump’s critics have alleged that his administration is seeking to slow the transition to a majority-minority U.S. population, citing his disparaging remarks about Muslims and his characterization earlier this year of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries.”

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said earlier this year that Trump’s “Make America Great Again agenda is really a Make America White Again agenda.” The administration denies that its immigration policies are discriminatory.

Trump’s economic argument against immigration comes as the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8 percent, the lowest level in nearly two decades. Some American businesses are clamoring for workers, and the slowing of legal immigration could further strain a job market in which a record 6.6 million positions are unfilled.

The Post’s analysis focuses solely on immigration visas that allow people abroad to move permanently to the United States with the intention of obtaining citizenship — in other words, the visas that more closely anticipate long-term demographic shifts in the American population. The analysis does not include temporary visas, such as the popular H-1B visas for skilled workers, the H-2B visas for seasonal workers or student visas.

Federal data shows that applications for the H-1B visas have fallen for the first time in five years, according to a March report by immigration lawyers. The report cited a barrage of new and unprecedented application requirements, as well as reports of administration plans to further limit the visas.

With certain industries facing worker shortages, some economists argue that new limits on immigration could have unintended consequences for the nation’s economy.


Executive power

Legal immigration is believed to outpace illegal immigration by about 3 to 1, according to statistics collected by the Pew Research Center, and scaling back legal arrivals has been a top priority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House adviser Stephen Miller and some other administration officials.


But the Trump administration has managed to effect significant changes in immigration without Congress, in part by relying on administrative guidance handed down to consular officials to change the way immigrant visas are considered and processed, administration officials and outside experts said. The result is a shift in the legal immigration process in line with the vision of Miller, the adviser who officials say sits at the helm of immigration policy decisions.


Under the previous administration, case officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processed immigrant visa applications with “a culture of getting to ‘yes,’ ” said another high-ranking administration official familiar with immigration policy deliberations.

Now those officers, along with consular officers at the State Department, feel empowered to exercise their own discretion, take more time scrutinizing each applicant and more strictly enforce existing laws on inadmissibility, the official said.

The longer vetting process results in fewer approved applications per month.


Amendments to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual in January expanded the burden of proof for visa applicants to show that they will not become “a public charge,” which is grounds for denial. Immigration analysts who have reviewed leaked policy drafts expect the administration to publish new rules soon to expand further the terms of inadmissibility.


‘Arbitrary questions’ for visas

The largest decline in approvals is occurring in the family-based visas that allow U.S. citizens and legal residents to sponsor the immigration of relatives to the United States — what Trump has labeled “chain migration.” Special immigrant visas that are predominantly reserved for the Iraqis and Afghans who served the U.S. government in war zones also have been reduced significantly.


But immigration attorneys are having less success getting the applications approved.

Applicants are “facing arbitrary questions that are really difficult for them to answer, and then they’re getting denials for things that attorneys have never seen before,” said Kristie De Peña, director of immigration and senior counsel at the Niskanen Center, an immigrant advocacy group. {snip}

There have been similar trends in other immigrant categories. Refugee arrivals are on track to fall by 75 percent from 2016 levels, according to federal data.

With just three months before the end of the fiscal year, the United States is only a third of the way to its refugee cap for Africa and Latin America and less than half of the way to its cap for Asia. But it has surpassed the smaller cap set for European refugees, said analysts at the Niskanen Center.