By Andrew Soboeiro
Since Donald Trump took office as President of the United States, discussion of immigration has largely focused on official public policy. Yet presidents often have as much impact by changing public perceptions as they do by signing laws and issuing executive orders. Trump’s mere presence in the White House has created the perception that immigrants are unwelcome. This has influenced the behavior of businesses, civil servants, and immigrants themselves, impacting immigration levels even in areas where official policy has not yet changed.
Trump’s Indirect Impact on Immigration
By becoming president, Donald Trump has influenced immigration in a number of ways, including:
- Reduced Entry: The number of people crossing the US border illegally has dropped precipitously since Trump was elected. Because the new president had made clear his intention to shore up border security and increase deportations, fewer people are willing to take the risk of entering the country in the first place.
- Fewer Applications: The number of applications for H-1B visas, or entry permits for workers with specialized skills, has dropped precipitously this year. This is partly because American and foreign businesses do not expect to get as many visa petitions for their workers approved, and thus do not want to go through the trouble of filing them.
- Refusal to Hire: This month, the US Army announced that it would not hire immigrants with green cards to serve in the National Guard or the Army Reserve. Such immigrants can still get jobs as active-duty soldiers, but only after undergoing extensive background checks. This decision is highly controversial, and may not be legal. Army officials argue they are doing this to reduce the threat of espionage, but have not offered any evidence that immigrants present an espionage risk. It is possible that they made this decision out of fear that they will be subject to extra scrutiny for recruiting immigrants.
- Scrutinized Extensions: The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, has recently announced that it will not take prior adjudications into account when deciding whether temporary residents can extend their stay in the United States. In other words, nonimmigrant visitors who want to stay longer must provide strong evidence that they should be allowed to remain, regardless of whether they have gotten extensions in the past. This policy was issued in response to the Trump Administration’s insistence that employers hire US citizens, though the president has not officially ordered USCIS to do this.
- Expanded Interviews: In addition to scrutinizing temporary residents, USCIS is requiring more applicants for permanent residence to undergo in-person interviews. This decision, which was influenced by one of President Trump’s executive orders, is aimed at those applying for green cards based on employment or refugee status, but will affect all applicants, as well as many US citizens. By exacerbating the already-serious application backlogs, it is making it harder for Americans to obtain legal status for their spouses, children, and other relatives.
While these changes are likely to reduce the number of immigrants and visitors entering the United States in the short run, it remains to be seen whether they will persist for the long haul. Changes in perception do not always last, especially if elected officials do not back up those perceptions with concrete policies. In the 1980s, for example, the Reagan Administration pledged to reinforce border enforcement, leading to a temporary drop in immigration from Mexico. But actual border policy did not change much, so immigration levels rebounded.
Thus while these changes in perception are important for the time being, official policy remains supreme. Donald Trump’s legacy on immigration will hinge on the orders he issues and bills he signs, and not merely on the atmosphere he creates.