Donald Trump on Immigration

Pros and Cons of Donald 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 follow economic nationalism. Trump's "America First" program 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 what he's done is through executive actions and existing laws, not through Congressionally-approved policies. 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 undocumented immigrants from receiving benefits.
  5. Deport immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. They are currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 
  6. Restrict travel and visas from certain countries.
  7. Reduce the number of refugees. 
  8. Review the H-1B visa program.

Restrict Legal Immigration

On August 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 February 24, 2020. 

Trump's policies are scaring even legal immigrants from using health care and other services.

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. That's 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 order applied to immigrants who were outside of the United States on April 22, 2020, and did not have a valid immigrant visa or other official travel document.

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
  • Health care workers or researchers 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 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 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. Residents of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas face the most consequences. Opponents say the wall will cut off pathways for endangered species like ocelots. Supporters say it's worth it.

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. It 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. They're down from 1.67 million in 2000 and from a record 1.69 million in 1986 because border security is better. 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 anyone 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. He's doing this by preventing Latin American immigrants from even 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, they are subject 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 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 Undocumented Immigrants from Receiving Welfare

On June 22, 2017, Trump asked Congress to prevent all immigrants from receiving welfare for the first five years in the country.  The move would take away the authority of states who currently decide who is eligible for assistance programs. Trump would also enforce regulations that deny immigration status to those who seem likely to become "public charges" within the first five years of their arrival.

The Department of Homeland Security found that the use of welfare among undocumented immigrants was negligible, less than 1%. It reported that 15.5% of foreign-born noncitizens benefit from Medicaid. Around $2 billion a year goes to hospitals who must care for anyone who shows up at the emergency room. The percentage is similar to 16.1% of native-born Americans who use Medicaid.

The study found that 9.1% of undocumented immigrants used food stamps, compared to 11.6% of native-born. Many undocumented immigrants receive benefits because they live in households with eligible Americans.


On January 9, 2018, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against Trump's attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. The policy protects "dreamers" from deportation. These are immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The judgment overrode Trump's announcement that he would end DACA on March 5, 2018. There are still pending legal actions against DACA. Trump wants Congress to create a replacement program.

On January 25, 2018, Trump released a proposed immigration plan. It would offer a 12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children. It would replace President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

On April 24, 2018, the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Homeland Security must better explain its reasons for canceling DACA. If it doesn't do so in 90 days, the department must resume processing DACA applications.

On August 4, 2018, a federal judge ruled the Trump administration must fully restore DACA. On November 8, 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld DACA.

On January 19, 2019, Trump offered to protect the Dreamers for three years in exchange for border wall funding. Democrats rejected it because it's not permanent.

DACA offers a two-year deferral of deportation for eligible immigrants. Eligible people are those under 31 who were illegally brought to the United States as children. President Obama launched the program with an executive order in 2012. Since its launch, 2,261,485 dreamers have applied for and received work permits. 

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

Travel Ban

On January 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 September 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 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 are still allowed to get tourist visas.

Reduce the Number of Refugees

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

On March 6, 2017, a Trump executive order banned refugees for 120 days unless they were already scheduled for travel. Homeland Security has reviewed the application process to 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. That gave the State Department the ability to increase the number of refugees to 70,000 in 2017.

On October 24, 2017, the Trump administration 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.  The 11 countries included Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Sudan.  One official said they account for 63% of refugees. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 53,716 refugees were resettled in the United States during the fiscal year 2017.  A breakdown in the chart below shows that refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were the biggest group, accounting for 17%. They were followed by refugees from Iraq (13%), Syria (12%), and Somalia (11%).

In 2018, the Trump administration cut the staff that conducts clearance interviews overseas and intensified the screening process for refugees. It also adopted a risk-based approach to refugee admissions, including collecting biographic and biometric data from intelligence and counterterrorism databases, to make background checks and the screening process more rigorous. As a result, it's estimated that only 22,491 refugees were resettled in fiscal year 2018. That's the lowest figure since the resettlement program was created with the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980.

The steepest decline is with Muslims. In fiscal 2016, 38,900 Muslim refugees came to the United States, according to the State Department. In 2017, that number fell to 22,861. Only 3,495 entered in 2018. 

Review the H-1B Visa Program

On April 18, 2017, Trump signed an executive order asking the Department of Homeland Security to review the H-1B visa program.  He 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. That's ironic, since the press widely reported that his Mar-a-Lago club sought H-2B visas for its cooks and waiters.  It could take years for the review to be carried out. 

The order is directed at foreign firms that operate in the United States but bring employees from abroad. Major tech companies are also big users of the H-1B visa.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is sending many H-1B visa applications back for "further evidence.” At least 25% of such applications are being rejected compared to 20% a year ago.

Silicon Valley CEOs worry that Trump might restrict this program. The Immigration Act of 1990 provides temporary visas to about 330,000 foreign-skilled workers. Of these visas, two-thirds were for computer-related jobs. These companies would lose valuable employees without the H-1B visa program. That would hurt the success of some of America's most profitable companies. 

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 wanted Congress to create a bill that would treat unaccompanied minors from Central America the same as those from Mexico. Currently, they receive greater protection. 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 issues relating to immigration remain a hotly-debated topic. Many argue whether the contributions immigrants make to the U.S. society outweigh the drawbacks. The following list of pros and cons presents some of the issues that affect native-born Americans. Some of them support Trump's policies, while others aren't so clear cut.

Pros and Cons

The Center for American Progress estimated that mass deportation would reduce U.S. gross domestic product by 1.4%. 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 $60 billion to deport the 750,000 people protected by DACA. They contribute $280 billion a year to the economy.

Immigration more than pays for itself. 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 (97.8%) of that growth returns to the immigrant workers as wages.  They repatriate $25 billion back to family members in Mexico. They spend the rest in America. 

Native-born workers who compete directly with the immigrants for jobs are hurt the worst. Those are the young, less-educated, and minority workers. Their unemployment rate is higher than for older, college-educated, and white workers. 

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.

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

If the government granted them amnesty, the costs to society would increase significantly, a study by The Center for Immigration Studies found in 2004.

The Bottom Line

President Trump’s “America First” policy and national security concerns are bent on tightening the noose 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. But you need to be aware of the extent of these reforms and how they are to be implemented. They are important international as well as domestic policies that could have overbearing effects on the health of the U.S. economy.

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

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