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Trump was not the champion of legal immigration he claimed to be

Four years after President Trump’s campaign against illegal immigration helped him get elected, he has sucessfully reduced all forms of immigration. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to build a wall to prevent illegal border crossings and to “remove all undocumented immigrants” arguing that anyone entering the country should go through the proper entry process. Trump’s promises were geared towards reducing illegal immigration. Nearly four years later, Trump has been unsuccessful in following through on his exact promises. Illegal immigration was not reduced because of a wall or deportations. It was reduced because of increased border security and policy changes. At the same time, Trump has pursued reductions in all immigration. Trump has implemented changes that affect international workers and students, refugees, and asylum seekers alike. For decades, immigrants have strengthened the economy and supported the labor force; without them the country loses a vital resource. Although Trump largely targeted illegal immigrants his administration has rattled the entire system, reducing all immigration.

Trump’s approach to immigration disregards how important immigrants are to the country. Reducing immigration hurts the country’s labor force and economy. In 2018, the rate of labor force participation by foreign-born adults was 3.4 percent higher than native born adults. In addition, immigrants without a college degree make 20 percent of the workers in farming, fishing, forestry fields, and 36 percent of the workers in buildings and grounds cleaning, maintenance work, and 21 percent of workers in home health care. Meanwhile, immigrants make up 13.7 percent of the US population but in 2017 they made up nearly 30 percent of all new entrepreneurs benefitting the country’s economy. 

During his campaign, Trump used powerful soundbites such as “build a great wall,” “stop all illegal immigration” and “[establish] a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” To outline exactly what he would do to reduce illegal immigration, however, he has been largely unsuccessful in seeing through his exact promises. Trump promised to build a “wall” but has mostly replaced existing structures, and the length of the barrier has only increased by three miles since he took office. Likewise, Trump did not stop “all” illegal immigration. It is true that because of his policies, the number of apprehensions has been on an eight-month decline as of January 2020, the longest since April of 2008, however, he did not succeed in stopping all illegal immigration like he promised he would. Furthermore, his attempt to restrict Muslims from immigrating failed. The Supreme Court sustained one of his three excutive orders concerning the entry of people from predominantly Muslim countires, but the Court’s opinion cites national security, not religion, as the basis for the decision. Trump was able to prevent entry for some Muslims not all, and therefore did not achieve a “complete shutdown.” 

Trump was vocal about what he would do to reduce illegal immigration but remained mostly silent about legal immigration along the campaign trail. While Trump was hard-pressed to keep his promises about illegal immigration, he has ironically curtailed much of legal immigration. When Trump did talk about legal immigration, it was either to encourage people to enter the country through “a process” or to claim he would reform legal immigration so as to “serve the best interests of America and its workers.” However, Trump’s policies on legal immigraton have not improved the “process” for immigrants to enter, nor have they benefited American workers. Trump’s policies about legal immigration have focused on limiting foreign workers and students, refugees, and asylum seekers. As a result, legal immigration has dramatically declined. 

Trump has massively overhauled the legal immigration system, just looking at how he has altered refugee policy demonstrates the significant changes he has made. The Trump administration lowered admission ceilings and implemented vetting measures that have resulted in record low refugee admissions. In two years, the number of refugee admissions dropped nearly 75 percent in 2018. In the same year, Canada surpassed the United States in resettlements by 5,000. The United States constantly resettled more refugees than any other country for decades; however, since Trump entered office the number of refugees admitted has been on a steady and sharp decline. The admission ceiling for 2020 is 18,000, the lowest it has been since modern refugee resettlement began in 1980, and only about 8,000 refugees have been resettled as of October demonstrating the administration’s determination to limit refugee admissions. The administration put in place new vetting requirements and deprioritized applications resulting in decreased resettlement. Refugee admissions is just one part of legal immigration yet it is a clear example of Trump’s intentions for all immigration. 

Since becoming president, Trump has reduced legal immigration by nearly half. Legal immigration including immediate relatives of citizens, refugees, asylum seekers, family-sponsored preferences, employment based preference, diversity, and the rest of the immigration system has seen an overall decrease of 49 percent. This reduction suggests Trump intended to reduce all immigration from the beginning of his presidency. However, his campaign never proposed such reductions. 

A presidential campaign is supposed to give voters the opportunity to learn about a candidate, a future president. Voters learned about Trump’s intentions for illegal immigration; to reduce it. However, he went further than what voters, now constituents, expected. He reduced all immigration. Trump was able to change the immigration system so much because of executive power and a fractured system. If the executive branch had less power the significant changes he made to immigration policy such as significantly reducing the refugee admission ceiling would not have been possible. Meanwhile, if immigration legislation was not in such dire need of revision there would not have been as much opportunity to alter the system. The last major immigration legislation was in 1986 with the Immigraiton Reform and Control Act. Immigration has changed considerably since then, hence, it is unreasonable to expect legislation passed over thirty years ago to still work effectively. Trump took advantage of the power of his office and a broken system. To undo what he has done will take more than a presidency, but it is essential to the betterment of this country. Executive power should be reined in to keep presidents accountable while the immigration system needs to be reformed to fit the needs of today. Trump revealed where we can improve as a country now it is time to do just that.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Denise Rowlands)