Trump is Making Inroads in Reducing Legal Immigration

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 Donald 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.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld that ban, paving the way for an even more dramatic decline in arrivals from those countries. Legal immigration from all Muslim-majority countries is on track to fall by nearly one-third.

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

“The history of immigration policy in the United States is one of ebbs and flows,” said a White House official. “Yet in recent years, the U.S. has [had] record immigration without any consideration of this influx’s impact on American workers or wages.”

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.

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.

It is unclear whether part of the drop in immigrant visas reflects declining interest in immigrating to the United States, because the State Department did not release visa application data, saying it doesn’t publish that information.

The number of people apprehended trying to cross the border illegally from Mexico declined precipitously during Trump’s first fiscal year. While outside experts suspect Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has deterred some legal immigration, too, they cautioned that visa backlogs and processing times are so extensive that even a significant drop in applicants is unlikely to put a major dent in the same year’s immigrant visa issuances.

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. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized the rate of immigration under Obama as dangerous and unchecked. He called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has vowed to bring about “extreme vetting” and to keep out those who don’t share “our values.”

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.

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

Rep. Cedric 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. 

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.

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.

Margaret Wong, an Ohio-based immigration attorney with offices across the country, said her practice has experienced an increase in family-based immigrant visa applications since Trump took office. More people are applying out of fear that the administration will soon eliminate those types of visas, she said.

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. “We’re hearing that pretty much across the board from all the attorneys that practice with us.”

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 toits cap for Asia. But it has surpassed the smaller cap set for European refugees, said analysts at the Niskanen Center.

Trump has consistently emphasized his intention to transform the U.S. immigration system into one based on “merit” rather than family ties, preferring those with desired skills and financial resources who also speak English.

In his State of the Union address, Trump said he planned to accomplish this in part by eliminating a vast subset of family-based visas, along with the diversity visa lottery, which provides about 50,000 immigrant visas to underrepresented nationalities each year.

Asked whether any of the specific regional or country declines in immigrant visa numbers are intentional, one of the high-ranking administration officials said that the government’s system for administering visas is “thoroughly egalitarian.”

Read more facts about the alarming trends here:

Abigail Hauslohner and Andrew Ba Tran