How The Trump Administration Has Changed Legal Immigration

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This is part I of our series on legal immigration in the U.S. 


Speaking to a roaring crowd of tens of thousands of people at a Houston rally on Sunday, President Trump vowed to prioritize American citizens over illegal immigrants.

“We are taking unprecedented action to secure our Southern border and stop illegal immigration,” Trump said.

It’s a familiar refrain, as promises to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, disparaging remarks about immigrants and calls to crack down on illegal immigration have become hallmarks of the president’s rhetoric.

But the Trump administration has also moved forward in its attempts to restrict legal immigration, at times by slow-walking adjudication processes and otherwise exercising executive power, as Congress — which has the power to control immigration flows — remains at a standstill.

“The president got elected on an election mandate,” attorney Muzaffar Chishti tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “And part of his narrative during the campaign was that he thought we’re admitting too many people – and too many [of the] wrong kind of people. So the expectation was that he would support big measures to reduce legal immigration and to change the mix of people we let in.”

Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, takes us through the effect of the president’s policies, proposals and rhetoric across the legal immigration landscape.

Interview Highlights

On the president’s immigration plan put forth at the Rose Garden in May

“So when you look at his own proposals, the only proposal that he has made so far was actually not to reduce legal immigration. [It] was to keep legal immigration at the current levels — pretty close to a million people brought in [each year] as lawful permanent residents to the United States. What it did was to change the structure of the immigration streams and reduce the reliance on family unification, which is a cornerstone of immigration admissions today, and move that in favor of what he likes to call merit-based immigration, which is more people who are coming here on the basis of education or jobs.”

On whether Trump’s proposal will become legislation

“There’s no legislation offered to implement that at all. On the other hand, there have been bills introduced by members of the Republican Party in the Senate which would reduce legal immigration considerably. And those bills actually go counter to the president’s own proposals on legal immigration. So there are mixed signals here on what the president finally believes, and what he wants to do.”

On how the president is actually affecting immigration

“The executive, which he has complete control on, has a lot of control on how to process applications for legal immigration. … There are two or three things they have done in the process. One is they’re taking longer to adjudicate almost every application beginning with citizenship, which is very important for a number of reasons. Because the more citizens you become, the more people can vote. And when you become a citizen, you can also sponsor other immigrants. So if you delay the process of citizenship, not only do you delay voting, but you also delay people’s ability to sponsor other people.

“The second thing they have done is that in green card applications, where normally it would take just a quick glance of an immigration examiner, is that they are taking longer to adjudicate that. And in many cases, they are asking people to come for interviews, which in the past would just be done on paper … So a lot of people call it slow walking. People would like to argue that what you can’t do legislatively, they have done administratively, just by slow-walking the process.”

On whether would-be immigrants are so put off by the process and surrounding uncertainty that they decide to immigrate elsewhere

“I think [this] is happening in clearly one category of immigrants, which is the employment-based category, where people come on the basis of sponsorship of an employer, and is particularly happening with two nationalities: Chinese and Indian immigrants. Our line in the queue is determined not only by the category you come from, but the country you come from. And the Indian and Chinese lines are backlogged so much that it’s taken sometimes even eight and 10 years for people to get their number. A number of those people in the line — and these are highly specialized professional people in the I.T. fields and engineering — just give up and then choose to go to Canada or Australia or Europe.”

On the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the public charge rule

“This public charge requirement is the oldest provision in immigration law, it’s an 1882 provision. But the definition of it, they have extended so much that it narrows the group of people who may be able to make it. So, if you used any benefit in the past, any member of your family has used a public benefit in the past, that will be held against you. And more importantly, they want to take a futuristic look at you. How likely are you to be on the dole? Those discretions are given to an immigration or a counselor officer, and they’re heavily weighted in favor of people with education and degrees and younger age, as against people who may come from low-income families.”

On Trump shrinking the cap for refugees from 110,000 people per year at the end of the Obama administration to 30,000 in the last fiscal year

“The one number that the president has almost complete control on is how many people we allow to enter as refugees. It was given to the president in the past because refugee admissions are seen sort of consistent with foreign policy. And we have been the hallmark in the community of nations [as] the beacon of hope. And we have taken, you know, half a million people at the peak of our refugee admissions during Indochina War. We have never seen this low. … They finally agreed to admit 30 [thousand] and only about 15 or 16 were actually admitted. And that again is determined by the longer time they have been taking in screening applications.”

On the president’s proposal to eliminate the diversity lottery program

“All kinds of people have different views on diversity visas. It’s a provision of the law that is a recent one. It’s actually introduced in the 1990s, and it was oddly a reaction to members of Congress believing that our demographics in our immigration streams had so radically changed that European immigrants no longer had a foothold to come to United States. In the last 30 odd years, the major beneficiaries of the diversity visas have been Irish initially, then people from Poland, and then increasingly African countries. In fact, the current stream of immigration from African countries hugely comes from diversity visas. So if we get rid of the diversity visas, you will have a big dent in the immigrants coming from African countries and from some European countries.”

The effect of tone and policy on immigrants and would-be immigrants

“Well, the tone obviously matters, and the tone was set by the president and his campaign, that we should look at immigration not as a good thing but as a threat to U.S. security and to U.S. jobs. That has been the backdrop of all of the president’s narrative. And that affects every immigrant. It affects students who are trying to come in, and we know the number of foreign students has gone down considerably. It affects people who are in high-skill jobs in H-1B categories, because they have to wait very long periods of time to move to a green card. It affects their spouses, which is a big change from Obama to this. The spouses of H-1B workers, who are almost always professionals themselves, were given a special dispensation to be able to work while their husbands were waiting. That is being taken away. So that whole swath of people, from family members, people in the professions, students, even entrepreneurs coming in, the message is America’s welcoming mat is not as good as it used to be.”

On how this might change the landscape of immigration to the U.S. going forward

“One of the great things about our immigration, frankly has been, is that we have welcomed family. We have been diverse in the number and in the types of people we pick. And that diversity, I think, is in jeopardy. We can’t forget in this that we don’t just need high skilled people in this country. Our economy is hugely reliant on the need for medium skilled and less skilled people. And if there is one thing that is causing the dysfunction in our immigration system is that we have very few options for legal immigration, for people in mid- and low-skill. Because the laws of economic gravity work magically, that people come and take jobs that are available in the U.S. because either U.S. workers are not available or are not willing to take certain jobs. Those jobs are critical in our economy, but in the absence of legal avenues for people to come, they then use unauthorized channels. And that gives rise to the core of the unauthorized population in the U.S.”


 Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Paris also adapted it for the web.



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