WASHINGTON – There were executive orders. Presidential proclamations. New rules and regulations. Policy memos. New agency guidance.
Immigration experts say that in his four years in office, President Donald Trump fundamentally altered the system through which foreign nationals can obtain visas to come to the United States, much of it through policy memos and internal guidance and without the blessing of Congress. It was a cascade of tiny cuts – and the result, in part, was fewer visas issued.
Immigrant visa issuance decreased more than 17% from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2019, when the government issued 462,422, according to State Department data. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, immigrant visa issuance fell an additional 46% – in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic – to 250,446.
The Trump administration also has issued fewer temporary visas, which include those provided for study, tourism and work. The three years before the pandemic struck had a 16% drop, to 8.7 million temporary visas. In fiscal 2020, that total number dropped again by more than half.
In a statement, the State Department attributed the decline in visa issuance that preceded the pandemic to “cyclical” demand, and said pandemic-related suspensions of routine visa services at embassies and other restrictions affected the numbers this year.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to reverse many, if not all, of the Trump administration policies that immigration lawyers and officials say have reduced the flow of immigrants to the United States, aiming to get things back to the way they were before starting on any fresh goals.
Biden has pledged to “restore and defend the naturalization process for green-card holders,” and to “support family-based immigration.” He also has said he wants to preserve “preferences for diversity in the current system,” because Trump has sought to eliminate what is commonly known as the diversity visa lottery that ensures that the United States draws immigrants from everywhere instead of the small number of countries that are overrepresented in family and employment-based immigrant visas.
Biden’s new ideas – increasing the overall number of work-based immigration visas, reforming the high-skilled work visas known as H1-Bs to ensure less abuse of the workers and the system, expanding paths to citizenship for long-term agricultural workers, and allowing cities to petition the federal government for higher levels of immigration to support their growth – probably will have to wait, and will require bipartisan cooperation, experts say.
But the Biden administration will first have to figure out how to get the paperwork flowing again. Visa processing times and admissions, particularly for citizens of Africa, Asia and South America, have slowed since Trump took office because of changes that administration officials say were necessary to properly vet foreign travelers.
Some of the most notable declines in immigrant visa issuance under the Trump administration have occurred among nationals that Trump publicly disparaged or targeted specifically.
Haitians, whose country Trump has disparaged, for example, received 67% fewer immigrant visas between 2016 and 2019. Mainland Chinese – whose country Trump has blamed for many things, including the United States’ economic woes and the coronavirus pandemic – received 35% fewer immigrant visas during that same time period. Iranians, among the nationalities that Trump’s travel ban targeted, received nearly 80% fewer immigrant visas.
Immigration lawyers say the Trump administration’s added protocols, which they say have included frequent “requests for evidence” or additional paperwork, as well as more interview requirements, created unnecessary additional bureaucracy without showing a demonstrable impact on safety. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also has raised processing fees and has struggled with funding shortages, and backlogs have lengthened significantly.
“Visa processing . . . is going to be very time-consuming and complicated,” said Ali Noorani, the chief executive of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group, referring to the effort to unravel the Trump administration’s changes.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a Biden ally who has consulted with the Biden campaign and transition team on immigration policy, said one key change will be the leadership and staffing of the Department of Homeland Security and its immigration-related agencies, including USCIS; leaders will need to be familiar with the department, so they will know where to make the fixes, he said. Durbin said a major priority of the new administration will be unraveling hawkish Trump administration policies, many of which senior adviser Stephen Miller orchestrated as part of a restrictionist approach to immigration.
“We also have to make sure we clear the decks of Miller’s acolytes in these agencies,” Durbin added.
Some changes will require new internal guidance memos, but others will need new rules to replace the old – a formidable months-long process that allows time for public input.
The Trump administration also has continued to issue new immigration policies since the election, including policy manual changes that give USCIS officers more discretion to deny permanent legal residency, also known as green cards. Immigration experts think the Biden administration will quickly reverse most recent changes, but they also say the new policies will add to the bureaucracy and could create a major influx of post-transition applicants.
“I think this administration is going to need to probably conduct a pretty thorough audit of the changes that have taken place and figure out how to stand up these institutions,” said Kristie De Peña, the vice president for policy and the director of immigration at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank that favors more immigration. “All of that is going to take a lot of time and money.”
A spokesperson for the Biden transition team declined to answer questions about forthcoming policy, instead referring to the campaign’s website, where the president-elect alludes to the bureaucratic challenges and backlogs that he will need to address.
“The Trump administration has made it far too difficult for qualifying green-card holders to obtain citizenship,” the website says. “Biden will restore faith in the citizenship process by removing roadblocks to naturalization and obtaining the right to vote, addressing the application backlog by prioritizing the adjudication workstream and ensuring applications are processed quickly, and rejecting the imposition of unreasonable fees.”
More broadly, experts say, the agencies that adjudicate all of these visas, work permits and citizenship are going to require a culture shift to move beyond Trump’s immigration posture.
“It’s not just about mechanics,” said Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. USCIS under Trump has been transformed from an immigration “benefits” adjudication agency to an “enforcement arm” of the administration’s immigration agenda, she and other experts said. What was once an agency built around facilitating immigration, work and travel to the United States has shifted its focus to keeping people out.
“I think that one of the most pervasive effects of the administration has been a culture shift in the way these agencies relate to their jobs, and that’s actually going to require a lot of effort,” to reverse, Shebaya said.