Donald Trump on Immigration

The Economic Impact of Trump's Immigration Policies

A migrant caravan walks into the interior of Mexico after crossing the Guatemalan border on October 21, 2018 near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

John Moore / Getty Images

President Donald Trump's immigration policies fall under his "America First" program, which seeks to protect American workers and industries. It's a departure from decades of a U.S. immigration policy that centered on family reunification, asylum, and safe harbor of refugees.

Most of Trump's immigration policies have been enacted via executive actions and existing laws, not through Congressional approval. He is working on legislation to send to Congress that would award immigration status based on skill and merit.

Trump's immigration policies center around eight areas:

  1. Restrict legal immigration. 
  2. Complete the border wall with Mexico.
  3. Reduce the number of asylum seekers.
  4. Stop immigrants from receiving benefits.
  5. End the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and deport its recipients. 
  6. Restrict travel and visas from certain countries.
  7. Reduce the number of refugees. 
  8. Modify the H-1B visa program.

Restrict Legal Immigration

On Aug.12, 2019, the Trump administration set stricter standards for legal immigration applicants.  Those who use or may need public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, or housing aid may not receive their desired immigration status. This vetting applies to applicants for green cards and nonimmigrant visas. As a result, it rewards those with high incomes and private health insurance. The rule took effect on Feb. 24, 2020. 

The administration has made it more difficult for applicants for employment-based visas and some green cards by requiring face-to-face interviews. 

The policies have reduced the number of immigrant visas issued. In 2019, there were 462,422 immigrant visas issued to applicants abroad, down from 2016 when 617,752 were issued. The biggest decline was in immediate relatives, which fell from 315,352 in 2016 to 186,584 in 2019.

On April 22, 2020, President Trump suspended immigration for certain groups of people for 60 days.

The suspension applied to those who did not have a valid immigrant visa or official travel document on the effective date of April 22, 2020.

The order was in response to record-high unemployment. People had been laid off as businesses shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order did not apply to:

  • Lawful permanent U.S residents
  • Any alien seeking to enter the U.S. on an immigrant visa as a health care workers or researcher and their families
  • Immigrants who qualify for the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, the Special Immigrant Visa in the SI or SQ classification
  • Spouses, children, or potential adoptees of U.S. citizens
  • Immigrants who would further U.S. law enforcement or be in the national interest
  • Members of the military and their families

Complete the Border Wall With Mexico

President Trump promised to complete a wall on the 1,954 mile U.S. border with Mexico.  A wall between San Diego and Tijuana was originally authorized in 1996.  The George W. Bush administration built 650 miles of walls, pedestrian fencing, and vehicle barriers under the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Between 2007 and 2015, around $2.4 billion was spent.

Trump initially promised to force Mexico to pay for the wall, but that didn't happen. In 2019, Trump declared a national emergency to allow defense funds to be diverted to the wall construction.  He also devoted funds to replace or enhance segments of the existing wall.  The total cost is estimated to be between $15 billion and $25 billion. 

Democrats largely oppose the border wall, but Republicans are largely in favor. However, residents of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas face the most consequences, and opponents say the wall will cut off pathways for endangered species like ocelots.

Critics say the wall won't work, especially without added security forces. Others worry about the impact on the environment in their states.

The conservative Heritage Foundation says the money would be better spent on technology and agents to prevent illegal crossings. The organization suggests more enforcement to apprehend immigrants who overstay their visas.

The government uses the number of apprehensions as a way to track immigration levels. In fiscal year 2019, there were 859,501 such apprehensions, which is down from 1.67 million in 2000 and from a record 1.69 million in 1986 because of tightened border security. Half of all current immigrants without documentation crossed the border with visas but stayed after they expired.

Reduce the Number of Asylum Seekers

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act states that any foreigner who arrives in the United States, "whether or not at a designated port of arrival," may apply for asylum.

The Trump administration tried many tactics to reduce the number of asylum seekers. Most of them were shot down in court because they violated the 1965 act.

Trump tried to deport those who appeared at the border without documentation. He tried to restrict asylum applicants to use only designated ports of entry. His administration briefly separated immigrant children from their parents before ending the policy due to popular outcry. There are some reports that the separations continue.

Trump is using Mexico itself as a border wall by preventing Latinx immigrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. His administration helped create a Guatemalan border patrol and has enlisted the Mexican National Guard. It's also negotiated regional asylum agreements that require asylees from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to apply to one of the other countries instead.

Trump ordered that asylum seekers be returned to Mexico while waiting for the outcome of their hearings. The Migrant Protection Protocols forces them to live in dangerous conditions, without access to an immigration lawyer. In the camps, there are reports that they have been subjected to rape, torture, and kidnapping.

Trump faces an uphill battle in stopping immigration because conditions in some Latin American countries are so bad.

The World Bank estimates that climate change could send 1.4 to 2.1 million people north by 2050. Drought, shifting rain patterns, and extreme weather destroys crops and leads to food insecurity.

The World Food Program found that almost half of Central American immigrants left because there wasn't enough food. A university study found that rural regions of Mexico sent more immigrants after droughts and fewer after periods of rainfall. A 10% decline in crop yields during droughts created a 2% increase in immigration.

A big reason for the uptick in asylum seekers is an increase in drug-related violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The gangs are fueled by the illegal drug trade in and into the United States. 

Stop Immigrants From Receiving Welfare

Trump promised to prevent all immigrants from receiving any form of welfare for at least the first five years in the country.  This had been the federal policy since 1996, but states could allow benefits in certain cases. Trump's policy would encroach on state sovereignty.

Trump would deny immigration status to those who seem likely to become "public charges" within the first five years of their arrival. He also sought to deport any immigrants who sought any health care treatment, including immunization, that could prevent the spread of diseases within that five-year period.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Many receive benefits because they live in households with eligible Americans. Some states allow CHIP coverage for pregnant women. Around $2 billion a year in Medicaid funding reimburses hospitals that are required by law to care for anyone who shows up at the emergency room.


On Sept. 5, 2017, Trump announced a wind-down of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The program postpones the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. It assigns them work permits allowing them to obtain social security numbers, pay taxes, and become part of “mainstream” society. On June 18, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that his action was not lawful.

DACA offers a two-year deferral of deportation those under 31 who were brought to the United States without documentation as children. President Obama launched the program with an executive order in 2012.

On Jan. 25, 2018, Trump signed an executive order to replace DACA. It would offer a 10-12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children. It would also drastically restrict legal immigration and add funds for the border wall. Yet, it didn't pass through Congress.

A year later, Trump again asked Congress to approve a similar plan. He offered to protect DACA recipients for three years in exchange for border wall funding. Democrats rejected it because it's not permanent.

The Cato Institute estimated that the elimination of DACA could cost the economy $215 billion in lost GDP over 10 years. That's the amount of lost spending power from these employed young people. 

Travel Ban

On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump issued an order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. It also barred entrance to Syrian refugees. This order was blocked in federal courts. In March 2017, Trump released a revised order, which was also struck down, though the Supreme Court allowed it to go into partial effect.

On Sept. 24, 2017, Trump issued a third version of the travel ban, enacting restrictions on travel from eight countries.

  1. Chad—includes bans on immigrant, business, and tourist visas.
  2. Iran—includes bans on immigrants, businesses, and tourist visas but does allow student and exchange visitor visas.
  3. Libya—includes bans on immigrants, businesses, and tourist visas.
  4. North Korea—bans immigrant and tourist visas.
  5. Somalia—nationals are banned from entering as immigrants. Entry visas for nonimmigrants require heightened scrutiny.
  6. Syria—bans immigrants, businesses, and tourist visas.
  7. Venezuela—includes bans on business and tourist visas to government employees and their families.
  8. Yemen—the U.S. bans immigrants, businesses, and tourist visas.

The proclamation permits waivers to be granted individually in “special circumstances,” such as to individuals urgently needing medical care, and to infants, children, and adoptees. The variations depended on how well the countries adhered to recommended security measures. 

On Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, 2017, federal courts halted portions of President Trump's travel bans. The judges said that the bans on predominantly Muslim countries are unconstitutional. They interpreted Trump's own words to infer that his bans on Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen were based on religion.

On Dec. 4, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to implement its travel ban while litigation continued. In a 5-4 ruling released on June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the legality of this ban.

On Jan. 31, 2020, Trump banned applications for immigration to six more countries: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania. People from these countries, though, are still allowed to get tourist visas.

Reduce the Number of Refugees

On March 6, 2017, a Trump executive order banned refugees for 120 days unless they were already scheduled for travel. The order was designed to allow Homeland Security to review the application process and prevent any exploitation by terrorists. 

Trump planned to halve the total number of refugees accepted to 50,000 per year. Federal judges stayed those orders. Nevertheless, only 53,691 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in 2017.

In 1951, the United States signed a United Nations treaty that says, "refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay" because extreme situations sometimes "require refugees to breach immigration rules."

On Oct. 24, 2017, Trump allowed refugees from all but 11 countries. For the next 90 days, those countries were subject to risk assessment for threats to the security and welfare of the United States. Those countries included Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan. 

In 2018, the Trump administration cut the staff that conducts clearance interviews overseas and intensified the screening process for refugees. The U.S. State Department adopted a risk-based approach to refugee admissions, including collecting biographic and biometric data from intelligence and counterterrorism databases, and making background checks and the screening process more rigorous.

As a result, only 22,405 refugees were resettled in 2018. That's the lowest figure since the resettlement program was created with the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980.

The chart below shows the impact this had on where refugees came from. Between 2017 and 2019, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest group, increased. Refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan fell dramatically. All other refugee groups also declined.

Modify the H-1B Visa Program

On Oct. 6, 2020, Trump announced modifications to the H-1B work visa program, raising the wages that U.S. companies must pay foreign workers to more closely match those of American employees. It also narrowed the eligibility criteria for applicants.

H-1B visas are awarded to foreign workers with a bachelor's degree or higher. The jobs require specialized or complex knowledge. They are also awarded to prominent fashion models.

In 2019, H-1B visas were awarded to more than 388,000 foreign-skilled workers. Of these visas, two-thirds were for computer-related jobs.

Trump wants to make sure that only highly-paid skilled immigrants receive the visas. He doesn't want any to go to foreign workers that are paid less than their U.S. counterparts.

The order is directed at foreign firms that operate in the United States but bring employees from abroad. Major tech companies in Silicon Valley are also big users of the H-1B visa. These companies would lose valuable employees without the program. That would hurt the success of some of America's most profitable companies. 

On March 20, 2020, the administration suspended applications due to the coronavirus pandemic. On June 22, 2020, Trump extended the suspension through the end of 2020. It was overruled, however, on Sep. 4, 2020.

These actions follow an April 2017 executive order asking the Department of Homeland Security to review the H-1B visa program.

Other Trump Immigration Policies

In his 2017 State of the Union address, Trump established the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.  It helps victims of crimes committed by removable criminal aliens.

On Oct. 8, 2017, the Trump Administration released a list of immigration requests to Congress. The wish list requested funding for a wall on the border with Mexico. He also wanted Congress to amend a law in order to expedite the removal and return of illegal, unaccompanied alien children. In addition, Trump asked Congress to withhold federal funds from "sanctuary" cities. Those municipalities don't cooperate with federal immigration agents.

On Nov.1, 2017, Trump said he would eliminate the diversity lottery for foreigners seeking U.S. visas. He also asked the State Department to intensify extreme vetting of immigrants. He was responding to the terrorist attack that killed eight people in New York. The attacker had won his visa through the lottery.

The Economic Impact of Trump's Policies

The following list of stats shows the impact of Trump's immigration policies on the U.S. economy.

The Center for American Progress estimated that mass deportation would immediately reduce U.S. gross domestic product by 1.4% and ultimately 2.6%, and decrease cumulative GDP over 10 years by $4.7 trillion. This liberal research group estimates that farmers would have a hard time finding replacement workers. Instead, they would be forced to cut their production to fit the reduced labor supply.

The Cato Institute reported that it would cost over $60 billion to deport the 750,000 people protected by DACA, and lead to a $280 billion reduction in economic growth over the next decade.

Immigrants add $1.6 trillion to the economy each year. Of that, $35 billion is a net benefit to the companies and communities where they live. The rest is earned and spent by immigrant workers. 

Mexican immigrants repatriate $30 billion back to family members in Mexico. They spend the rest in America. 

Illegal immigration lowers wages by 3% to 8% for low-skilled occupations. That averages out to $25 a week for native-born workers without high school diplomas. President Trump promised during his campaign to require companies to offer all jobs to Americans first. 

Between 2000 and 2013, the number of native-born workers fell by 1.3 million. Studies show that they left the workforce. Many older workers retired or went on disability. Younger workers went back to school. During that same period, the number of working immigrants rose by 5.3 million. That's out of 16 million immigrants who arrived in America.

According to the National Research Council, immigrants cost the U.S. government between $11.4 billion and $20.2 billion each year.  They use that much more in services than they pay in taxes. On the other hand, they cost the government less than native-born Americans with similar education and work histories. 

Immigrants in the workforce pay taxes into Social Security and Medicare. It improves the age dependency ratio or the number of working people who support the nation's senior population. The ratio is worsening because the native-born population is aging. There aren't as many in the working-age population to support them. As more immigrants enter the workforce, the age dependency ratio improves.

According to studies, immigrant women are also more likely to have children. In 2016, 7.4% of foreign-born women gave birth, while only 5.9% of American-born women did. The higher birth rate of immigrants helps support the current working population when they retire.

The Bottom Line

President Trump’s “America First” policy and national security concerns have resulted in tightening of restrictions around both illegal and legal immigration. Whether the new policies are good or bad for the country is really up for debate. 

What is clear, though, is that U.S. immigration policies need comprehensive reforms.

Other Trump Policies: Tax Plan | NAFTA | Health Care | Jobs Creation | Debt Reduction

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