During his State of the Union address, on February 5, 2019, Donald Trump declared, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” The remarks and those that followed the next day raised two questions: 1) Is this a change in Trump administration immigration policy? And 2) What signals or clues should we look for to know whether Trump’s remarks represented rhetoric or a new reality?
The first two years of the Trump administration has seen a series of actions to reduce immigration. These efforts have included the travel ban against citizens of several predominately Muslim countries, low levels of refugee admissions, supporting legislation to reduce legal immigration by 50% and numerous administrative measures to make it more difficult for employers to hire or retain high-skilled foreign nationals in the United States.
Given this track record, journalists followed up the day after the State of the Union address to determine if the remarks about increasing legal immigration represented a shift in policy. “President Donald Trump said Wednesday he wants to see more legal immigration because additional workers are needed by companies moving back to the United States,” reported USA Today. “I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in,” said Trump in response to questions from journalists. “We need people.”
“Mr. Trump has made some supportive comments about demand for foreign labor from U.S. industries before,” reported Louise Radnofsky in the Wall Street Journal. “But his recent remarks stood in contrast to his longstanding backing of restrictions to favor Americans’ jobs, wages and security. The White House said Friday that Mr. Trump’s focus was on high-skilled labor.”
If it’s true the Trump administration is looking to increase legal immigration, including with a focus on high-skilled immigrants, then here are the clues to look for to determine if the administration has changed its mind and now favors pro-immigration policies:
We may find out soon whether the Trump administration is serious about increasing or at least maintaining the current level of high-skilled foreign-born professionals, since reversing its plan to rescind the 2015 rule on H-4 EAD would send a clear signal of the administration’s intentions on legal immigration. The H-4 EAD (employment authorization document) regulation has allowed up to 100,000 spouses of H-1B visa holders to obtain work authorization. H-4 EAD recipients generally have similar education levels to their H-1B spouses. Removing tens of thousands of well-educated individuals from the workforce does not make economic sense and would go directly against the recent statements by Donald Trump that “We need people.”
The next item on the calendar may be rules that affect the employment of high-skilled foreign nationals on H-1B and L-1 visas. Due to the long waits to obtain an employment-based green cards, H-1B and L-1 temporary visas are often the only practical way for a high-skilled foreign national to work long-term in the United States. “Multiple sources confirm that the agency is far along in drafting the ‘H-1B strengthening rule,’” according to Berry Appleman & Leiden. “The rule would revise the definition of ‘specialty occupation’ and ‘employment and employer-employee relationship,’ and aims ‘to better protect U.S. workers and wages.’ USCIS is also drafting an L-1 regulation that would revise the definition of ‘specialized knowledge.’” (L-1 visas are used to transfer existing employees into the United States.) If new regulations make the H-1B and L-1 visa categories more restrictive, then that will send a clear signal that the president’s remarks in the State of the Union on increasing legal immigration should not be taken seriously.
The annual refugee ceiling is announced around October 1 every year and raising the number of refugees admitted to the country would show the administration is serious about increasing legal immigration. Refugee admissions to the United States have reached historic lows since the Refugee Act of 1980 under administration policies. If Donald Trump wants to fill jobs in plants and factories, then according to employers refugees are ideal workers for both plants and factories and are willing to move wherever available jobs are located.
If Donald Trump’s statement in the State of the Union was sincere that he wants “people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever,” then another item to check on the calendar is the public charge rule. The National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) recently submitted comments on the regulation and concluded, “The proposed regulation could reduce legal immigration by more than 200,000 immigrants a year.” (See here for an analysis.) The NFAP comments focused on the rule’s flawed methodology for excluding immigrants and the regulation’s impact. Withdrawing the public charge rule before the end of 2019 would show the administration is no longer interested in reducing legal immigration.
The most obvious way for the administration to show it intends to increase legal immigration is to support a bill that would admit more legal immigrants. Absent that, the administration could support H.R. 1044, a bipartisan bill that would not increase legal immigration but would eliminate the per-country limit for employment-based immigrants, which would help retain scientists and engineers whose wait times for green cards can stretch longer than a decade. (See here for an analysis of the bill.)
Concrete steps the Trump administration could take to implement a more welcoming policy on legal immigration include allowing the spouses of H-1B visa holders to continue working in the United States, raising refugee admissions and proposing no new restrictions on H-1B and L-1 visa holders. Actions speak louder than words, even if those words were spoken during a State of the Union address.
(Author Stuart Anderson is the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan public policy research organization focusing on trade, immigration and related issues based in Arlington, Virginia. From August 2001 to January 2003, I served as Executive Associate Commissioner for Policy and Planning and Counselor to the Commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Before that I spent four and a half years on Capitol Hill on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, first for Senator Spencer Abraham and then as Staff Director of the subcommittee for Senator Sam Brownback. I have published articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other publications. I am the author of a non-fiction book called Immigration.)