Shutting the door to legal immigration
The Trump administration is building a virtual wall to keep out potential immigrants who apply legally. Here's everything you need to know:
What is the new policy?
Since President Trump took office, his administration has dramatically cut the number of people obtaining lawful permanent residence — in other words, a green card — from 1,063,289 during the 2016 fiscal year to about 577,000 in 2019. The number of visas issued to people intending to immigrate has fallen from 617,752 to 462,422 over the same period. Critics charge that the administration's efforts are racially motivated, since they disproportionately affect lower-income immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. They point to Trump's repeated attacks on the diversity visa lottery program that annually grants entry to 50,000 immigrants from what Trump has described as "shithole countries." The administration counters that it's just emphasizing merit and skill and protecting the American taxpayer from a drain on the social safety net. What isn't in dispute is the effect: "I don't think we have seen any modern president engage in an effort to reduce the number of immigrants the way this president has," said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California–Davis' law school.
How has that been accomplished?
With a large number of rule changes. Rules for applying for asylum have been tightened, forcing 60,000 people to wait in camps in Mexico as their applications are processed. The administration has capped the admissible number of refugees fleeing violence or persecution at a historic low of 18,000, down from 110,000 in 2016. In January, Trump expanded his travel ban to 13 countries, including Nigeria, which accounted for almost 8,000 visas during the 2018 fiscal year. Also in 2018, officials announced they would begin summarily rejecting applications for visas and green cards that contained any mistakes or missing documents, without allowing the applicant to correct the error. Average wait times on the processing of such applications had doubled by the end of 2018, and officials are now insisting in most cases on in-person interviews. "He's really ticking off all the boxes," said Sarah Pierce, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research group. "In an administration that's been perceived to be haphazard, on immigration they've been extremely consistent and barreling forward." The public charge rule is another example of the White House's efforts to restrict legal immigration.
What is the public charge rule?
Reportedly "a singular obsession" of Trump adviser Stephen Miller, it could prove the most significant change to immigration policy yet. Originally, the public charge rule was part of the Immigration Act of 1891 and was used to deny applications from "idiots, insane persons, paupers, or persons likely to become a public charge." But in August, the administration broadened that evaluation to include 20 separate factors, including English-language proficiency, credit scores, student loans, income level, and whether an applicant had received "noncash benefits for basic needs." In announcing the policy, Ken Cuccinelli, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, altered the poem at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, saying, "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." A study by the MPI found the new rules could potentially have blocked about two-thirds of green card recipients from 2012 to 2016. In January, the Supreme Court lifted two separate injunctions that allowed the administration to proceed with the public charge rule, which has been called "a wealth test" for immigrants.
What about fees?
They are being raised across the board, in an apparent attempt to dissuade the poor from even applying. There's a new $50 fee on applications for asylum, for example, which many destitute people fleeing drug gangs or political persecution can't pay. In November, Trump issued a proclamation that all green card applicants had to prove to a consular officer that they plan to buy health insurance within 30 days of their arrival, or that they have sufficient funds for medical care. The order has been stayed by a federal judge pending a challenge, but if enacted, it would affect about 375,000 legal immigrants a year, or two-thirds of the total.
What else is in store?
Last spring, the administration released a proposal for a "merit-based" revamp of the existing immigration system. It would, if enacted by Congress, award applicants "eligibility points" based on criteria such as English fluency, whether they have existing job offers, professional skills, education level, and age, as well as a category called "patriotic assimilation," which might include a test on historical texts like George Washington's farewell address. The plan, spearheaded by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, would rebrand green cards as "Build America" visas. Doug Rand, an Obama immigration adviser, called the plan an attempt to reverse the policies that enabled most Americans' ancestors to come to this country. "Never before in our history have we closed off the American dream to strivers who aren't already middle class," he said.
Worsening a labor shortage
Critics claim that Trump's immigration policies are making an existing labor shortage worse. In January, before the disruption caused by the new coronavirus, the Labor Department released data showing that U.S. employers were trying to fill 7.5 million vacant positions, while only 6.5 million people were looking for jobs. It was the 11th month in a row that open positions outnumbered applicants, a reversal of a 20-year trend. Trump's former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney conceded the dilemma in February. "We are desperate, desperate for more people," he said. "We created 215,000 jobs last month. We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth." Complicating the issue is that much of the need is for low-skilled labor such as home health care and restaurant and hotel work, which college-educated Americans are disinclined to do. "The U.S. economy needs low-skilled immigrants much more than high-skilled immigrants," said Alexia Fernandez Campbell at Vox. "Businesses are having a much harder time finding construction workers, restaurant cooks, and hotel housekeepers than computer engineers and doctors," yet those are types of workers that Trump's proposed "merit-based" system disfavors.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, try the magazine for a month here.