WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s immigration policies — like travel bans and visa restrictions or refugee caps and asylum changes — have begun to deliver on a long-standing goal: Legal immigration has fallen more than 11% and a steeper cut is looming.
While Trump highlights the construction of a border wall to stress his war on illegal immigration, it is through policy changes, not physical barriers, that his administration has been able to seal the United States. Two more measures were to take effect by Monday, an expansion of his travel ban and strict wealth tests on green card applicants.
“He’s really ticking off all the boxes. It’s kind of amazing,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, 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 number of people who obtained lawful permanent residence, besides refugees who entered the United States in previous years, declined to 940,877 in the 2018 fiscal year from 1,063,289 in the 2016 fiscal year, according to an analysis of government data by the National Foundation for American Policy. Four years ago, legal immigration was at its highest level since 2006, when 1,266,129 people obtained lawful permanent residence in the United States.
Although the data provides only a glimpse of the effect of Trump’s agenda, immigration experts said it was the first sign of a decline that coming policies are most likely to exacerbate. Those include the wealth tests, which will be imposed on immigrants applying for green cards from both inside and outside the United States.
Around two-thirds of the immigrants who obtained permanent legal status from 2012 to 2016 could be blocked from doing so under the new so-called public charge rule, which denies green cards to those who are likely to need public assistance, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute.
The numbers reflect the breadth of the Trump administration’s restrictionism, and they come as record low unemployment has even the president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, confiding to a gathering in Britain that “we are desperate, desperate for more people.”
But the doors have been blocked in multiple ways. Those fleeing violence or persecution have found asylum rules tightened and have been forced to wait in squalid camps in Mexico or sent to countries like Guatemala as their cases are adjudicated. People who have languished in displaced persons camps for years face an almost impossible refugee cap of 18,000 this year, down from the 110,000 that President Barack Obama set in 2016.
Family members hoping to travel legally from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela were blocked by the president’s travel ban.
Increased vetting and additional in-person interviews have further winnowed foreign travelers. The number of visas issued to foreigners abroad looking to immigrate to the United States has declined by about 25%, to 462,422 in the 2019 fiscal year from 617,752 in 2016.
But two more tough policies were to take effect by Monday. The expansion of Trump’s travel ban to six additional countries, including Africa’s most populous, Nigeria, began Friday, and the public charge rule, which effectively sets a wealth test for would-be immigrants, was to start Monday. Those will reshape immigration in the years to come, according to experts.
The travel and visa bans, soon to cover 13 countries, are almost sure to be reflected in immigration numbers in the near future. Of the average of more than 537,000 people abroad granted permanent residency from 2014 to 2016, including through a diversity lottery system, nearly 28,000, or 5%, would be blocked under the administration’s newly expanded travel restrictions, according to an analysis of State Department data.
But the public charge rule may prove the most consequential change yet.
Before Monday, immigrants were disqualified from permanent resident status only if they failed to demonstrate a household income above 125% of the federal poverty line, a threshold set by Congress. Now, immigration officials will weigh dozens of factors, like age, health, language skills, credit score and insurance as well as whether an applicant has previously used public benefits, to determine if the applicant is likely to use them in the future. One factor that could also count against an applicant is the mere fact of applying for a green card, a Catch-22 that has been a key criticism from immigration advocates.
Even before the policy went into force, it discouraged immigrants and citizens in immigrant families from seeking public assistance they qualify for, such as Medicaid, food stamps, free or reduced-price school meals or housing help, according to immigration analysts.
“Data suggest that millions of people, including U.S. citizens, have already pulled out of safety net programs they’re legally entitled to, based on fear of the public charge rule — even though it doesn’t apply to them and never will,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship. “That’s not a ‘chilling effect’ — that’s a fraud upon the American people.”
The State Department’s enforcement of a far more limited form of the public charge rule in recent years may offer insight into how aggressively the Homeland Security Department is likely to use the new policy. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, 1,076 immigrants were found to be ineligible for visas under the rule. In 2018, 13,450 were, according to State Department data.
As the State Department moves forward Monday with the expanded public charge rule, the wealth test will be applied to green card applicants both inside and outside the United States.
Broadening the rule has been a long-sought after goal of the White House and specifically, the president’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, who admonished career officials for taking too long to enforce the policy.
After the Supreme Court on Friday lifted an injunction that blocked the policy in Illinois, the White House praised the plan the next day.
“This final rule will protect hardworking American taxpayers, safeguard welfare programs for truly needy Americans, reduce the federal deficit,” it said in a statement, “and reestablish the fundamental legal principle that newcomers to our society should be financially self-reliant and not dependent on the largesse of United States taxpayers.”
Other more subtle steps have also helped trim the number of immigrants arriving on U.S. shores, such as requiring in-person interviews for most immigration visas and a proposed 60% increase in citizenship fees for most applicants.
Tara Battle, 42, a nurse in Chicago, now finds multiple policies are burdening, if not outright dividing, her family. After meeting Daberechi Amadi Godswill, a Nigerian, in 2016 while on vacation in Gambia, Battle struck up a relationship and they married in 2018.
Since then, Battle, who supports a 12-year-old daughter on a $35,000 annual salary, said she and Godswill had spent around $1,000 on lawyer and processing fees, trying to bring him to the country. She believed she had taken the last step when she submitted her financial documents on his behalf this month.
Then her lawyers told her Trump had banned immigration from Nigeria. She said she would wait to see if the president lifted the ban, but if he does, she is likely to be saddled with much higher processing fees.
“Everything is up and running, the ball is already rolling. Why is it now on hold?” Battle asked in exasperation. “They’ve already done the background checks. They already did everything. The money, the fees, everything’s paid for.”
There is little sign that Trump will relent. He is already using his immigration agenda to incite supporters as the election nears. While the administration recorded 36,679 arrests at the border last month, slightly up from the 33,657 arrests in January 2016, the president has been celebrating an eight-month decline in border crossings since a surge of Central American families approached the border last year.
He has built only about 120 miles of his border wall, but his administration quelled last year’s surge with a less visible policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which have forced roughly 60,000 migrants to wait in Mexico as their immigration cases are processed in the courts. That measure, as well as a deal with Guatemala to deport asylum-seekers to the Central American country, has virtually ended asylum along the southwestern border.
“They want literally millions of people to flow into our country,” Trump said of Democrats at a recent tribute for members of the Border Patrol union. “And of those millions of people, tremendous numbers of them, are people you don’t want in this country.”
Mulvaney struck a different tone to a crowd of several hundred during a question-and-answer session with the Oxford Union in Britain, a tape of which was obtained by The New York Times.
“We created 215,000 jobs last month,” he said. “We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth.”
One aspect of Trump’s stringent immigration policies has not happened yet: The president has not deported “millions” of immigrants, as promised this year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested about 143,000 immigrants in the country from October 2018 to September 2019, 10% fewer than the previous fiscal year and the lowest level since Trump took office.
The administration has tried to change that trend by threatening retaliation against localities that embrace the policies of so-called sanctuary cities. Tactical units from Border Patrol have been deployed to assist ICE agents. Trump took aim at those cities, including New York, in his State of the Union address, claiming they allowed “dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that the president’s aggressive immigration measures had actually put people in danger. The “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute parents caught illegally crossing the border, he said, led to thousands of children being separated from their parents.
“By any reasonable measure that’s not success,” he added. “That’s abject failure.”