What’s Behind the U.S. Legal Immigration Slowdown?

May 21, 2019, 1:13 PM UTC

On May 13 at the White House, a few days before releasing his immigration reform proposal, President Donald Trump hosted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The nationalist leader is known, among other things, for consolidating the press under his influence and taking a hard line against refugees and other immigrants.

“… I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man,” Trump said of Orban, when asked about “democratic backsliding” in Hungary. “And he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”

Meanwhile, Hungary is in a precarious economic and demographic position, having gone too long with a dwindling birth rate coupled with low immigration. Faced with projections showing a shrinking, aging population, Hungary—along with a handful of other nations facing similar issues, such as Japan and Spain—is resorting to drastic measures to reverse course before there aren’t enough young people to care for retirees, much less launch the next Fortune 500 company.

The birth rate in the United States is also on the decline, but the U.S. immigration rate is comparatively high, buoying the supply of workers as the native population skews older. Under Trump, however, net migration to the United States is tumbling, down 12% from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, according to new Census Bureau data.

Three days after Orban’s D.C. visit, Trump stood in the Rose Garden to announce his sweeping immigration reform proposal, centered on a new merit-based visa program and tightened border security. While the plan will likely have to wait until the president has more support in Congress, the Trump administration is already wielding executive authority to mold the immigration system to its preferred model. Through incremental changes and executive discretion, the administration may be able to substantially reshape who is allowed into the country and who gets removed.

While much of the attention this year has been on illegal activity at the border, the White House has moved in calculated, but often overlooked, ways to constrict the pipeline of legal immigration. Through dozens of precise steps, the system has shifted into low gear, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now sitting on a record-breaking backlog of applications.

Members of Congress have called for an inquiry, but the pace at which paperwork is shuffled doesn’t draw as many eyeballs or Capitol Hill hearings as migrant caravans and overflowing border shelters.

“It’s a bunch of different policies and decisions that have added up to a significant shift,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “I think one reason the slowdown in legal immigration hasn’t gotten as much attention is because it’s not just one big newsworthy change, but rather a bunch of clever, smaller changes that have added up to a large impact.”

The directives and policy changes have touched nearly every aspect of the immigration system, from family-sponsored entry to work visas and asylum processing—all without the need for Congressional approval. The cumulative impact has dragged down the pace of lawful immigration and decreased refugee admissions to the lowest numbers in decades.

The Trump Model

In early 2018, USCIS changed its long standing mission statement. America is no longer called a “nation of immigrants” in the updated text, and a new line emphasizes the agency’s commitment to “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

Two years into the Trump presidency, applicants are sitting for more interviews and submitting more paperwork, while the denial rate steadily rises. From student visas and work authorizations to travel visas and petitions for foreign workers, vetting is up and admissions are down. Data released by USCIS in April shows the rejection rate was 80% higher in the final three months of 2018 than the same period in 2016, the last quarter of the Obama administration.

“They’ve increased vetting, increased the number of interviews required, all without providing a similar increase in personnel,” said Pierce, who has studied the various administrative moves on immigration in a detailed MPI report.

Previously, if an application to USCIS was missing information, the officer was obligated to notify the immigrant before rejection. Now, in a move from the Kafka guide to bureaucracy, USCIS has been newly authorized to outright deny incomplete applications, even while requirements are in constant flux.

At the same time, a record number of people are waiting on responses.

The previous high for delayed applications was 1.7 million in fiscal year 2004, as the entire immigration and homeland security apparatus was redone in the wake of 9/11. Now, USCIS reports the backlog reached 2.3 million cases in September 2017 and continues to grow despite just a 4% increase in applications. The wait time for some visa categories has nearly doubled.

More than 80 Democratic members of Congress signed on to a letter about the “crisis,” requesting the Government Accountability Office investigate the backlog, singling out the crawling pace of USCIS decisions. The agency pointed the finger at increased vetting and the shifting of resources toward the influx of asylum seekers at the southern border, among other issues.

As entry grows congested, the exit has been thrown wide open. While the Obama administration narrowed priorities for deportation and encouraged case-by-case consideration, under Trump, the Justice Department has broadened the scope of enforcement and offered less discretion to prosecutors and judges. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions whittled away at court mechanisms for delaying decisions or canceling proceedings, now judges often have no option but to order deportation.

“Right away Trump got rid of the priorities Obama placed on immigration enforcement, which were concentrating on individuals with serious criminal violations, recent crossings and recent removal orders,” Pierce said.

Trump has never hid his suspicions of the asylum and refugee system, and immediately slashed the U.S. annual cap on refugee placements after taking office. In Obama’s last year in office, the country admitted roughly 85,000 refugees. Two years later in 2018, the United States admitted just 22,000.

“Trump has set the refugee admission ceiling at the lowest level, and we’re not even meeting that very low ceiling,” Pierce said. “That can largely be accounted for because of the increased vetting.”

While refugees apply for relocation from afar, asylum is requested when a migrant has already reached the destination country. Any person on U.S. soil has the right to ask for asylum, but the metering system—a numbered waiting line at clogged border crossings—has kept some potential asylees from entering the country. Additionally, the administration has raised the bar for getting past the first step in the process, the credible fear interview.

Even the largest temporary employment visa program in the country, the employer-sponsored H-1B visa with 179,000 recipients, has also been a frequent target of Trump administration tweaks. The denial rate has doubled and the administration is restricting work permits for the spouses of visa recipients.

“The H-1B visa has been battered under this administration,” Pierce said. “And it has been very consistent with what Trump laid out on the campaign trail, when he featured IT workers who had been laid off and replaced with H-1B workers.”

Long-term Economic Effects

During his State of the Union address in February, Trump strayed from his prepared remarks, declaring: “Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

Evidence continues to show that immigration is a net positive for the economy, both in the near term and a century down the road. And, as the administration has belied those State of the Union sentiments by constricting immigration from dozens of angles, the U.S. fertility rate has hit a record low, with the total number of births in 2018 the fewest in three decades.

A new study released by Oxford Press in March analyzed economic effects county by county for the Age of Mass Migration, 1850-1920, when the largest wave of immigration to the United States was a catalyst for the greatest economic expansion in the nation’s history.

The counties with the greatest immigrant influx then, the study found, have higher income, less poverty, less unemployment, higher rates of urbanization, and greater educational attainment now. Much like today, the immigrants coming at the turn of the 20th century were a mix of cultures (although mostly European) and a blend of high- and low-skill laborers. Also similar to 2019, the Age of Mass Migration was a time of political and social backlash against the new arrivals.

“Slowing down immigration at a time of reduced fertility does seem short-sighted,” Sandra Sequeira, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at the London School of Economics, said in an email.

As long as current immigrants are successfully integrated and cities adapt to handle the growth, “my sense is that we would still expect sizable positive economic effects from today’s immigration in 25 years’ time,” Sequeira added.

One concern she suggested: Social and economic upward mobility has declined since the early 1900s, perhaps limiting opportunities for both native-born and low-skilled immigrants to share in the rewards of an expanding economy.

In the first half of 2019, demand for workers of all types is on the rise. Job openings outpace the number of people searching for work, and sectors like retail and hospitality are struggling to fill openings. Migration is keeping American communities with previously plummeting populations afloat.

A new study from Ball State University found a quarter of the population growth in Indiana between 2000 and 2015 was from immigration, and the influx particularly helped stabilize shrinking rural areas.

“Overall, we find that immigration, regardless of authorization status, is an important source of fiscal, economic, and demographic health for Indiana’s future,” coauthors Emily Wornell and Michael Hicks conclude.

In the Northeast, some cities that were growing and prospering thanks to previous refugee arrivals, are now trying to recruit those already in the U.S. to relocate. The International Institute of Buffalo, which aids in refugee resettlement, is preparing to launch a “Welcome Buffalo” campaign on Facebook and WhatsApp, showcasing the area’s resources and open-arms attitude.

Still, drastic reductions in admissions and accompanying federal support have led to the closure of 50 refugee resettlement offices, 15% of the U.S. network. Meanwhile, Trump’s broader immigration vision reflects the past two years of executive policy transformation—focusing on financially stable, educated immigrants as opportunities for low-skilled workers and underrepresented nationalities are restricted.

“Priority will also be given to higher-wage workers, ensuring we never undercut American labor,” he said during the Rose Garden presentation. “To protect benefits for American citizens, immigrants must be financially self-sufficient … to promote integration, assimilation, and national unity, future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission.”

Back in Hungary, Orban says accepting more migration to counter the shrinking population is tantamount to “surrender,” instead favoring generous tax breaks for childbirth. At the end of 2018, in response to a population collapse and meager birth rate, Japan reversed course on centuries of tradition. For the first time in its history, the notoriously anti-immigration nation introduced a visa for unskilled labor.

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