In the middle of his first year in office, President Trump endorsed a bill so radically anti-immigrant that even most Senate Republicans couldn’t stomach it.
Trump claimed the bill would create a “merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers.” The measure would have replaced the country’s current employer- and family-centered system with a points-based program, awarding immigrants points for criteria such as age and “extraordinary achievements,” though the only two achievements that would have earned points were Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals.
But the debate around “merit” helped disguise what would have been the bill’s most consequential effect: slashing legal immigration levels in half. Even for Trump loyalists, this was beyond the pale. The bill went nowhere, and several months later, the Senate voted 60 to 39 against advancing a similar proposal.
As it turns out, the president didn’t need Congress after all. Without ever signing a single immigration law or completing his famous wall, Trump has cut the flow of foreigners by executive fiat. This fiscal year, the United States is on track to admit half the number of legal immigrants it did in 2016. This would bring levels of legal immigration down to what they were in 1987 — when the U.S. population was about a quarter smaller, substantially younger and less in need of working-age immigrants than it is today.
If this milestone has gone mostly unremarked, it’s by design. It has been achieved through backdoor, boring-sounding, bureaucratic decisions. Small-bore and esoteric though many of them are, collectively they have crippled the legal immigration system and choked the flow of newcomers into the United States. Through hundreds of administrative changes, the machinery of the U.S. immigration system has become even slower, more cruel and more absurd than it was before.
Americans may assume that most of what Trump has done, at least in the field of immigration, can be undone by Joe Biden, should he be elected. But immigration analysts, lawyers and federal officials warn that the country’s immigration infrastructure will remain crippled long after Trump leaves office. Numbers of newcomers may be depressed for years, if not longer, diminishing the country’s economic growth, global influence and cherished role as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.
This is likely to be true even if the next president tries to roll back, one by one, every single action Trump has taken.
The Paper Wall
The immigration system is effectively two separate systems — one that deals with legal immigrants, and another with those who are not authorized to be in the country. (Some people, such as those who enter without permission as a means to request asylum, straddle both systems.) In recent years, more than 1 million people have received legal permanent residence (i.e., officially “immigrated”) annually, with an additional 9 million or so receiving temporary “nonimmigrant” visas to study, travel, work and so on.
The vast majority of immigrants living in the United States came here legally. Only about a quarter of the foreign-born are unauthorized; that is, they either crossed a border unlawfully or — much more often — overstayed their visas.
For years, the overall population of legal immigrants has been growing while the population of unauthorized immigrants has been shrinking. Since the housing bubble burst in 2007 — well before Trump took office — more undocumented people have been leaving the country than have been arriving. Despite these trends, the president has repeatedly suggested the country is being overrun by “illegals.”
From the start, Trump’s rhetoric has targeted these undocumented immigrants.
The president — the son and grandson of immigrants — says he has no problem with people who come to America “the right way” and “obey the laws.” “I want people to come in,” Trump said during the 2016 campaign. “I want tremendous numbers of people to come in, and we are going to have that big, beautiful door in the wall.”
This turned out to be a big, beautiful lie. Under the leadership of Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief adviser on immigration matters, administration officials have been ordered to “close every opening, shut every door, close every loophole and then some,” according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official quoted in Jean Guerrero’s chilling new biography of Miller, “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.” Every immigrant possible — whether here lawfully or not, professional-class or blue-collar, entrepreneur or scientist, adult or toddler — would be rejected, deported or repelled.
To the extent that Americans are aware of such policy changes, they’re probably only familiar with the more gothic, telegenic horrors — particularly those visited upon unauthorized immigrants.
That is: the nursing babies separated from their mothers when they crossed the border, amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family-separations policy for asylum-seekers; the abrupt deportations of undocumented immigrants who were otherwise law-abiding pillars of their communities, some of whose U.S.-citizen spouses even voted for Trump; or the initial, chaotic implementation of the Muslim ban (later rebranded a nondenominational “travel ban”).
In Trump’s most distorted visions, such policies would be reinforced by an electrified border wall surrounded by a moat filled with alligators. These conditions were designed, by the admission of administration officials themselves, to be vividly, infamously cruel, so they might better deter would-be immigrants.
The problem, of course, is that infamous cruelty is a double-edged sword. Immigrants learned of such policies, but so did Americans, many of whom preferred that their country not be wantonly inhumane. After news coverage of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy for asylum-seekers prompted public outrage, for instance, the administration scaled back family separations.
So, Trump officials simultaneously pursued another strategy for keeping out legal immigrants, one that’s more resilient to public opinion because few realize it exists: They built a barrier not of steel and reptiles but of paperwork.
The legal immigration system, to be clear, has long been broken. But since Trump took office, his aides have undertaken some 450 mostly technical, executive actions that have disfigured the system almost beyond recognition. Some changes rig the criteria for who counts as a “good” immigrant so that virtually no one qualifies. Some essentially try to trick still-eligible applicants into filling out their paperwork incorrectly. Yet others involve the government simply failing to process applications or issue new documents, in at least one case blaming “printer problems.”
These shifts, among countless others, mean that to reach Trump’s “big, beautiful door,” immigrants must now navigate an obstacle course crisscrossed by riddles and red tape.
For instance, one rule is allegedly designed to make sure immigrants who apply for green cards (or other visas) can financially support themselves when they get here. This might sound reasonable enough, until you consider how that standard is assessed. The regulatory language says an application can be denied if an official decides that the immigrant might someday use government benefits, “at any time in the future.”
What criteria are used to predict this? Among other things, the mere fact that a person is applying for a green card is considered a strike against an immigrant’s application … for a green card. (Asked to explain this apparent Catch-22, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said, circuitously, that officials must consider an applicant’s “prospective immigration status and expected period of admission as part of the totality of the circumstances analysis.”) This self-defeating policy alone, known as the “public charge” rule, is expected to reduce legal immigration by hundreds of thousands of people per year.
Other changes have ruled out, or attempted to rule out, entire categories of once-eligible immigrants. For example, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an edict in 2018 that severely restricted asylum for victims of gender-based or gang violence; other rules since have further narrowed eligibility standards, or tried to. Restrictions on asylum quickly became self-perpetuating. As the administration made asylum harder to obtain, approval rates plummeted, and officials pointed to lower and lower rates as justification for ever-more-draconian policies.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly instituted policies that result in the expulsion of asylum-seekers without allowing them to seek asylum. These likely violate both U.S. law and international agreements on human rights. Thousands are living in filthy tent cities across the southern U.S. border under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program — whose official, more Orwellian name is “Migrant Protection Protocols.”
Often, the administration cites concerns about “national security” (physical or economic) to shut out immigrants. This excuse has been deployed frequently during the coronavirus pandemic. Somehow, children were labeled a risk to national economic security, on the apparent premise that even a 7-year-old might steal an American’s job. Applicants for O-1 visas, the type awarded to individuals with “extraordinary ability,” were similarly refused, with the government citing security concerns.
Even for visa applicants who still have a shot at qualifying, the process will soon become more expensive, at least if the administration prevails in ongoing litigation regarding an across-the-board increase in fees. The cost for a naturalization application, for instance, would nearly double, from $640 to at least $1,160.
Costs have risen indirectly, too. Common immigration forms are longer and more complicated. When Trump took office, the main “adjustment of status” form for green-card applicants was six pages long, with eight pages of instructions; the form has since stretched to 20 pages, plus 45 pages of instructions, not including the additional reams of supporting evidence and peripheral forms now required. (An update to the form and instructions, recently proposed by the administration, would be even longer.)
What’s more, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has essentially booby-trapped many of these forms. Applications can be rejected or denied if any fields are left blank — even if the field in question isn’t applicable. Examples: a blank field for a middle name, when the applicant doesn’t have a middle name; or no address listed for a deceased parent; or only three siblings named, when the form has space for four. Forms have even been rejected when applicants wrote “NA” instead of “N/A” — that slash apparently indicating a critical measure of the applicant’s merit.
Over the first six months that this “no blanks” policy was in place for one category of visa, half of all such applications were rejected because of it, according to a recent lawsuit. (An agency spokesperson said the policy helps adjudicators confirm an applicant’s identity and eligibility and that “Ensuring an application is complete from the beginning saves both the applicant and the agency time and resources.”)
Likewise, forms expire with little or no notice, replaced by nearly identical new forms, and applications already mailed with the old version get rejected.
Yet another new policy, introduced in 2017, encourages government officials to completely reinvestigate applications for extensions of existing visas, even when nothing about the case has changed. In practical terms, this means immigrants who have lived and worked here for years, sometimes in the exact same job, have to painstakingly re-document things they’d already proved to previous immigration officials long ago, like whether they have a college degree or what they do day to day. The process can end with an unwelcome surprise. Immigrants who have laid down roots — bought a house, paid taxes, enrolled their U.S.-born children in local schools — can abruptly be told to leave the country. That computer programming position you’ve held for a decade, and that previous immigration officers considered to be a “specialty occupation”? Doesn’t sound so special after all.
“This is not just about due diligence,” said Anis Saleh, an immigration lawyer in Miami, who estimates that about 70 percent of his skilled-worker visa applications now get slapped with more “requests for evidence,” often to prove things already copiously documented. “It’s harassment, intended to discourage, delay, obstruct people from coming here. They’re papering you to death.”
Denial rates for, say, extensions of visas for skilled workers have roughly tripled, from 3 percent during the five years before Trump took office, to 10 percent midway through fiscal 2020, according to a recent report from the National Foundation for American Policy. Denials for new skilled-worker visas have roughly quadrupled over the same time frame (from an average of about 7 percent to 29 percent).
Those rates may rise further under rules introduced this month that impose stricter requirements for high-skilled workers. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and also serving as the senior official at USCIS, recently told reporters that about one-third of the people who have applied for such visas in recent years would now be denied.
Even when such visas are issued, they’re sometimes rendered worthless: Until a recent court challenge, USCIS had been issuing skilled-worker visas that under the law should have been good for three years but were instead marked as expiring within weeks or even days of issuance. In some cases, the visas had expired before they were even mailed out.
Less than a month after a legal settlement ended this policy in May, the agency allowed a contract to print green cards and work permits to expire, effectively discontinuing them. Immigrants continued to be approved for these vital documents but stopped receiving them in the mail, because the printers had literally been shut off. (A spokesperson said this summer the agency had planned to bring printing in-house but could not add staff to do the work because of an ongoing hiring freeze.)
Administration officials will stop at nothing — including having the government do nothing — to slam the door on immigrants.
In some cases, the government has refused to process applications even when legally required to do so. This summer, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s effort to terminate the popular “dreamers” program protecting unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. The court ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program must continue, yet Trump’s acting secretary of homeland security issued a memo directing his department not to process any new DACA applications.
The administration has also repeatedly suspended the admission of refugees, the highly vetted immigrants fleeing persecution and violence who apply for haven while still abroad. (“Asylum seekers” are similar to refugees, in that they’re also fleeing persecution; but the term “asylum seeker” refers to people who are either already in the United States or arrived at a port of entry, and thus deal with a different set of vetting procedures.) The 2020 fiscal year closed with about 11,800 refugees resettled in the United States; over the three decades pre-Trump, the United States averaged more than six times that figure annually.
Across the entire month of October, zero refugees will arrive, because Trump dragged his feet in signing the official paperwork allowing refugees to be admitted in the fiscal year that just began. When he finally did sign the document this week, it newly ruled out thousands of refugees who had previously expected to be allowed in.
These and hundreds of thousands of other would-be immigrants have been trying to do as the president says, and get in line. But this “line” is not linear; it is more like the labyrinthine, interlocking, dimension-defying stairways found in an M.C. Escher print, with every 10th step or so a disguised trapdoor.
Can it be reversed?
One might assume that Trump’s changes to the immigration system can be easily undone — particularly since they were put in place unilaterally through executive actions (and refusals to do the work of government).
To be sure, many of the president’s immigration policy changes have already been reversed, paused or have yet to take effect. Nearly every major regulatory or processing change to the immigration system has been challenged in court: the public-charge rule, terminating DACA, asylum restrictions, fee increases, efforts to make it more difficult for military service members to become naturalized, the slowdown in printing of green cards, and more.
And the administration has an overwhelming record of legal failure, according to a database of major Trump regulatory actions maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University’s School of Law. In nearly every immigration case that has had some sort of resolution, a court either ruled against the agency or the relevant agency withdrew the action after being sued. Which says something about the legal chops of the people writing these policies or the quantity of corners being cut — possibly both.
Other regulatory actions would also likely be reversed by a new administration. But such reversals would happen slowly, if at all.
“In the Trump administration, immigration has been by far the highest priority,” says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who has analyzed the administration’s many actions changing the immigration system. “There’s no way it would be the highest priority under a new Democratic administration. Probably, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t even be in the top five, given everything else going on.”
Some rollbacks might be bad politics for Joe Biden, too. For example, the temporary visa program for skilled workers — which Trump has curtailed — has vocal critics within the Democratic base.
A future Biden administration would probably “make a big show of reversing some big actions,” Pierce said, such as the travel ban that primarily affects people in Muslim-majority countries. But she doubts that the next president “would pour the same energy and resources into the immigration agenda as the Trump administration did,” particularly when it comes to the hundreds of seemingly small policy changes that collectively create impenetrable barriers.
The Trump administration has employed every bureaucratic tool available to change policies: not just formal regulations but also presidential proclamations, memos, attorney general opinions, even editing personnel manuals. Some executive actions, such as the current moratorium on issuing green cards to anyone applying from abroad, could be quickly undone by the same means. But changes implemented through the formal rule-making process — which the administration has used of late to codify some informal changes into more permanent policies — would take longer to unwind. If a Biden administration were to follow the law on the (cumbersome) notice-and-comment process to change regulations, efforts to repeal some Trump policies would move slowly.
Indeed, there is ample evidence that Trump officials are counting on bureaucratic slowness to prolong the life of their agenda if they lose power. “It’s not like someone shows up on day one and can stop doing regulation A, B or C,” Cuccinelli recently told CBS News. “Anyone looking to undo all that is going to have a lot of work to do.”
Anti-immigration groups, meanwhile, have already announced they would sue to stop efforts to unwind Trump’s policies.
The Biden campaign, for its part, has released a long position paper on immigration, with 16 commitments for major policy changes in the prospective administration’s first 100 days, plus several dozen other initiatives. They include — as Pierce anticipates — high-profile targets such as the public-charge rule, the ceiling on refugee admissions, Pentagon funding being siphoned to the border wall and, yes, the “Muslim ban.” The language is also a little wishy-washy on policy rollbacks that might draw flak from the party’s populist, working-class flank.
Let’s assume for a moment that a newly elected President Biden is able to swiftly rescind or replace Trump’s most restrictive executive actions on immigration. Even that step would not undo the damage the current administration has inflicted. The immigration system’s scars will outlast Trump’s proximity to power for at least three reasons: the diminished “pipeline” of immigrants over the past few years; damage to the institutions that support the immigration system over the same period; and the erosion in the United States' reputation as a hospitable, predictable and safe place to immigrate.
First, the pipeline. We've already missed out on several years' worth of noncitizens who would normally have come to this country and entered the pipeline for green cards or eventual naturalization. These are refugees who were vetted but never resettled here; asylum-seekers blocked by restrictive new criteria; skilled workers whose employment-based applications were denied; and the family members who might follow these “missing” newcomers.
Even if the next president reverses the policies restricting entry of these groups, the years without many thousands taking initial steps to enter the pipeline means fewer people will become U.S. citizens, which would lead to lower levels of permanent immigration even after Trump leaves office. Absent a major change to the law — such as eliminating some of the intermediate steps needed to apply for a green card — the flow would take some time to speed up again.
Moreover, the pipeline is leaking — partly thanks to covid-19, partly thanks to the blitz of regulatory changes the administration has introduced in the months leading up to the election. The White House appears to be working overtime to cram in last-minute restrictions to immigration lest Trump get voted out; USCIS alone may issue two dozen more regulations this quarter, according to an internal agency document showing rule-making priorities.
Already, international student enrollment has been falling for several years, thanks to visa issues as well as other concerns (e.g., high tuition, xenophobia, gun violence). This fall semester, however, those colleges and universities that are fully online have no new international students because the administration is only issuing visas to new students if their courses meet in-person, even during a pandemic. State Department data show that issuance of student visas across all schools in fiscal 2020 declined around 70 percent from the previous year.
Another rule announced in September would limit most student visas to four years, rather than the duration of a student’s program of study. This could effectively block enrollment in most STEM-related doctoral programs, since they typically take at least six years. Right now, in many of these fields, such as engineering and computer science, a majority of degrees awarded go to students from abroad.
Historically, international students who have spent years training and socializing in the United States have chosen to stay after graduation. Annually, more than 70 percent of doctoral students have said they planned to remain here, according to National Science Foundation data going back to 2012. Among the doctoral students here today, though, many are struggling to get work visas; and, again, this year’s newly admitted class never arrived at many schools because classes were forced online.
Beyond the gaps and blockages in the pipeline, the Trump era has also badly damaged the government machinery necessary to screen and admit immigrants who wish to move here. Chief among the victims is the agency that handles most of the legal immigration system: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Many career civil servants at USCIS were attracted to its traditionally pro-immigrant, humanitarian mission. Unlike counterpart agencies focused on law enforcement (such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement), USCIS’s objective — as evidenced by its very name — is to provide services to immigrants and those who depend on them. It helps refugees escape persecution. It helps companies bring in the high-achieving talent they desperately need. It helps Horatio Alger-types build new lives in the United States and someday swear allegiance to this country.
But under Trump, the culture and priorities of USCIS have shifted away from helping eligible immigrants come here when the law allows — and toward hunting down excuses to keep immigrants out.
Its mission has changed in a literal sense: In 2018, the director of the agency rewrote its mission statement, deleting references to a “nation of immigrants” and to immigrants as “customers” whom the agency serves. (Referring to immigrants as customers, he said in a statement, promoted “an institutional culture that emphasizes the ultimate satisfaction of applicants and petitioners” instead of enforcement of the law.) USCIS has put its money where its mouth is, budgeting more than twice as much funding for fraud detection and prevention in fiscal 2020 as it did in fiscal 2016, biennial fee reviews show.
Employees not on board with the agency’s new ethos, or actions, have either been reassigned or pushed out. From fiscal 2016 to 2019, the number of employees leaving each year rose from 856 to 1,124, an increase of 31 percent.
“There’s just a significant brain drain across the department,” said Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at DHS from 2018 to 2020. “People got fed up with dealing with all the tinkering, and the politicization.”
It doesn’t help, of course, that USCIS spent much of this spring and summer threatening to furlough about 70 percent of its 19,000-person workforce because it is running out of money. These financial problems threaten to slow agency operations for years to come.
USCIS is funded almost entirely by user fees. It has been going broke in large part because it costs a lot more money to harass immigrants than it does to efficiently process their applications. With workers required to hunt for frivolous reasons to reject otherwise-eligible applicants, and with more of those “requests for evidence” issued, applications of every sort take increasingly longer to process. A citizenship application, for instance, takes roughly double the time (10 months) to process today as it did in the four years preceding Trump.
The threatened furloughs have been called off, at least for now, but the agency is still on shaky financial footing. To compensate, private contracts have been narrowed or canceled, further gumming up the works. Even if USCIS shores up its finances — it had consistent annual surpluses at the time Trump took office — these contracts will take time to rebid.
Similarly, the Trump administration has reshaped the immigration courts, which are a branch of the Justice Department, driving out long-serving judges and appointing anti-immigrant hard-liners to a powerful appellate board. One such appointee had previously denied more than 96 percent of the asylum requests before him and had been the subject of formal complaints of bias. The administration also changed the hiring process to make it more difficult to remove these appointees, helping to insure that Trump’s “reforms” outlast his time in office.
Other institutions involved in immigration have been weakened, too. For example, the U.S. refugee admissions program is a public-private partnership between the federal government and nine nonprofit national resettlement agencies, which operate through hundreds of small affiliates that engage faith groups, civic organizations, volunteers and former refugees. Federal funding for these organizations is mostly tied to the annual number of refugee admissions. Because refugee admissions have plummeted, so has funding.
As a result, more than 100 local offices, roughly one-third of all such affiliates, have closed since 2016, according to Refugee Council USA’s executive director, Adam Hunter. Reopening all of these offices — and rebuilding their networks with local employers and others who helped new arrivals — wouldn’t be simple.
Turning these networks back on, said one senior resettlement agency official, is not like flipping a switch.
Finally, there’s the harm to the United States’ reputation. This “nation of immigrants,” of course, had a long, ugly history of demonizing immigrants well before the Trump administration came to power. Likewise, the immigration system was dysfunctional well before Trump took office.
The Immigration and Nationality Act, which became law in 1952, is probably second only to the tax code in complexity. The byzantine, and arguably racist, system that Trump inherited includes annual quotas that leave Indian nationals in decade- or even century-long queues while allowing Icelanders to swiftly become permanent residents.
Previous administrations were also not exactly kindhearted to those living in the shadows. Mistreatment of migrant children and other abuses occurred on President Barack Obama’s watch, too.
But the past few years have been unusually rough on Uncle Sam’s brand. Arbitrary changes in policy, processing delays, hateful rhetoric and attempted fee increases have driven away global talent. Policy changes reversed by courts have created costs and uncertainties for immigrants already here and those contemplating coming. Even if a less xenophobic administration reversed some Trump policies, immigrants could not be certain what climate might persist.
“An election could definitely change this, but consistency is really the key, you know?” Utkarsh Mehta, a student from India at Washington State University, told me.
Mehta has weathered numerous reversals about whether he was even allowed to study journalism in the United States, as well as online vitriol from classmates and alumni who told him that students like him don’t belong. As he has become aware of how difficult it will be to obtain a work visa after graduation, he sometimes kicks himself for not enrolling in schools he was admitted to in Canada or Britain. High school classmates who made different choices seem to feel much more secure, he reports.
His advice to other Indian students contemplating studying in the United States? “Broaden your options, do not stick to the U.S.,” he says. “In case you’re really keen on the U.S., please remember, they can kick you out anytime.”
Other countries are already taking advantage of such fears. Canada and Australia are heavily recruiting international students with the goal of getting them to lay down roots after graduation and contribute to their adopted economies. Both offer welcoming rhetoric and faster, more predictable admissions processes. The number of U.S. residents who advanced through Canada’s flagship program for skilled immigration skyrocketed between 2017 and 2019, Georgetown University’s Zachary Arnold recently found. Successful applications from U.S. noncitizens — people living here who didn’t have U.S. citizenship — rose at least 128 percent during this period.
After waiting more than seven years to obtain a green card in the United States, Ajay Patel, an engineer at a major tech firm, applied for permanent residence in Australia. “I received the equivalent of the Australian green card within three months of [my] application, based on my skills and without ever setting foot in Australia,” he said.
Word of frustration with and mistreatment by the U.S. government filters back to immigrants’ home countries. In the years ahead, talented immigrants who have other options are more likely to take them.
What it will take to repair
Driving away immigrants is not merely a betrayal of U.S. history and values. It’s also bad for the country’s interests in the narrowest, most selfish sense.
Immigrants are net-positive economic and fiscal contributors to the United States, as has been documented most recently by a massive 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That is, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits.
This is true even of refugees who come here penniless and destitute. A separate 2017 report produced by the Trump administration found that refugees are net-positive fiscal contributors. After 10 years in the United States, the average resettled refugee paid $4,600 more in taxes annually than they received in public benefits. (The administration tried to suppress these findings, but they ultimately leaked and were published by the New York Times.)
When the children of immigrants grow up, the National Academies found, they are “among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.”
A mind-blowing 44 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, according to one analysis. Recent research has found that immigrants are net job creators and that they play outsize roles in high-growth U.S. entrepreneurship; and that more restrictive immigration policies — often intended to preserve job opportunities for native-born Americans — perversely lead to more offshoring. Firms end up increasing their overseas employment if they can’t bring the workers they desire into the United States.
We need these driven, working-age immigrants and their children to power our economy — and to keep government programs such as Social Security solvent.
We also need them to keep the country competitive — scientifically, militarily and culturally.
Immigrants make up roughly one-third of scientists and engineers in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation; foreign-born workers account for 45 percent of all doctorate-holders in these occupations. For generations, from the Manhattan Project to today’s Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine effort, immigrant scientists have contributed their talents while also enriching the contributions of their U.S.-born colleagues.
There’s a historical analogue for what we might expect from recent policy changes: The restrictive U.S. immigration policies that started in the 1920s resulted in a large decline in scientists from Eastern and Southern Europe. For decades afterward, the fields that these blocked scientists specialized in showed substantially less innovation. “American scientists became less productive as a result of not being able to work with the foreign-born,” said New York University economic historian Petra Moser.
If, as a country, we wish to continue reaping the economic, scientific and geopolitical benefits of being an attractive destination for global migrants, Americans must reckon with the hostility toward foreigners that has raged in recent years. That means more than reversing the current president’s depredations; it requires something much more difficult: actually fixing the U.S. immigration system.
As a country, the United States must show the motivation and capacity to operate a humane, functional immigration system. Such a system would make good on our obligations to those fleeing persecution and violence; prioritize for enforcement actions and removal proceedings those who present a danger to Americans; treat all immigrants with dignity, including those who are detained; give hard-working immigrants the chance to prove themselves and contribute to the economy; and reward vetted, driven individuals with a predictable pathway to legal work, permanent residence and eventual naturalization.
Immigrants need to know, with some degree of confidence, that if they stay on the right side of the law, they won’t be subject to endless harassment, indentured servitude or deportation. This requires fixing the many problems that predate Trump, such as the interminable green-card backlog and the uncertainty for undocumented immigrants brought here as children. It requires rescinding virtually all Trump-era administrative and regulatory actions. It also requires addressing serious structural issues revealed by Trump’s tenure: whether through deliberate or accidental delegation of duties by Congress, the executive branch has acquired too much discretion over the immigration system, making it ripe for abuse. Congress must codify more of the country’s obligations to immigrants, such as a minimum floor for refugee admissions and the due process owed those mistreated by our system.
In his series of recent, last-chance-before-the-election regulatory announcements, Trump has made clear just how much more damage he intends to inflict upon our immigration system if awarded another four years in office. But even if he loses, dismantling his legacy will take time, resources and political capital from Trump’s successor — and from the rest of us, too.