The decline in legal immigration

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the decline in legal immigration.

In his February State of the Union, President Trump talked about the problem of illegal immigration. He said he believes immigrants are an important part of what has made America great. But he wants them to come the right way.

TRUMP: Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. (Clapping) I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Under at least one visa program, more people will be allowed to enter the country legally. The Trump administration recently announced plans to increase temporary guest worker visas this summer. The government will double the number, from around 30,000 to around 60,000.

REICHARD: Last year, eight in 10 of these visas went to people from Mexico and Central America.

Despite that increase, the number of legal immigrants coming into the country has actually dropped under the Trump administration. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg talked with immigration experts about why that is.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The State Department’s most recent 2018 statistics show that between 2017 and 2018, the number of non-immigrant or temporary visas dropped 7 percent compared to the year before.

Those are visas issued to people coming to America for work, school, or tourism. When current rates are compared to the last full year under President Barack Obama, they’ve fallen 13 percent.

Muzaffar Chishti directs the Migration Policy Institute at the New York School of Law. He says that within this category, the number of employer H-1B visas is dropping. These are visas that allow businesses to recruit skilled labor.

CHISHTI: The Trump administration has taken the view that just because you have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t qualify you to be a high specialty occupation worker.

Chishti says in today’s tight job market, this decrease will impact businesses that recruit foreigners.

CHISHTI: I think in certain sections of the, uh, research and business community, the impact, if you’re really relying on those countries is, and it was beginning to show effect.

Foreign students can also apply for temporary visas. The number of those issued is down by 8 percent. Stuart Anderson is the executive director of the non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy. He says a decrease in foreign students coming to the U.S. means schools are losing out on tuition dollars that feed important programs.

ANDERSON: If there was a very large drop of international students in fields like computer science and electrical engineering, it might be difficult for universities to offer those programs for U.S students.

India, which typically has a large proportion of students studying in the U.S., has seen a particularly steep drop: 31 percent. Anderson says that could be because students who don’t think they can obtain a work visa after graduation might go somewhere else.

ANDERSON: As a result, more Indian students seem to be looking at Canada where the rules are easier for working after graduation and for gaining permanent residence once they get a job.

The difficulty of becoming permanent residents may have to do with the drop in immigrant visas, the other main category of visas issued by the U.S. government. Stuart Anderson says those visas have decreased by 5 percent compared to the year before and by 14 percent compared to President Obama’s final year in office.

Contributing to that overall decline is a 7 percent decrease of immigrant visas issued to immediate relatives and a nearly 30 percent drop for fiance visas.

ANDERSON: It is affecting people, particularly younger people who are more likely to be of the age that are getting married.

Anderson looked at the numbers and found the decrease in immigration visas is particularly concentrated in countries on President Trump’s so-called travel ban list. Those countries are Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela.

ANDERSON: In many cases that people being denied are simply being denied because they were born in those countries. Not because any negative information came about on these individuals.

So what’s behind the decline? There are several possibilities. One is the State Department’s “public charge rule.” It would deny visas to anyone the government deems likely to need government assistance.  Although it’s still officially in the proposal process, in 2018, the Trump administration instructed U.S. embassies and consulates to base who gets visas on the rule.

Migration Policy Institute’s Muzaffar Chishti says another contributing factor is the administration’s increased scrutiny of visa applicants’ intentions.

CHISHTI: If they see any evidence that you’re likely to stay, you should be denied a visa.

He says another possibility could be the Trump administration’s cautious approach to national security.

And since the State Department doesn’t release how many visa applications it receives or denies, it’s possible fewer people are applying for U.S. visas because of the rigorous screening. Christi says either way, immigration is slowing down.

CHISHTI: It takes much longer for any immigration benefit to be processed than it took two years ago.

What should people make of the decrease in legal immigration? National Foundation for American Policy’s Stuart Anderson says don’t get caught up in the rhetoric. Consider the possible outcomes with fewer immigrants flowing in.

ANDERSON: I think the best thing to focus on is whether these policies are good policies that allow businesses to have a workers they need and whether it allows American citizens to be reunited or even to be hosting visits from close family members and other people that they’re close to.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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