In the middle of his first year in office, President Donald Trump endorsed a bill so radically anti-immigrant that even most Senate Republicans couldn’t stomach it.
Trump claimed the bill would create a “merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers.” The measure would have replaced the country’s current employer- and family-centered system with a points-based program, awarding immigrants points for criteria such as age and “extraordinary achievements,” though the only two achievements that would have earned points were Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals.
But the debate around “merit” helped disguise what would have been the bill’s most consequential effect: slashing legal immigration levels in half. Even for Trump loyalists, this was beyond the pale. The bill went nowhere, and several months later, the Senate voted 60 to 39 against advancing a similar proposal.
As it turns out, the president didn’t need Congress after all. Without ever signing a single immigration law or completing his famous wall, Trump has cut the flow of foreigners by executive fiat. This fiscal year, the United States is on track to admit half the number of legal immigrants it did in 2016. This would bring levels of legal immigration down to what they were in 1987 — when the U.S. population was about a quarter smaller, substantially younger and less in need of working-age immigrants than it is today.
Americans may assume that most of what Trump has done, at least in the field of immigration, can be undone by Joe Biden, should he be elected. But immigration analysts, lawyers and federal officials warn that the country’s immigration infrastructure will remain crippled long after Trump leaves office. Numbers of newcomers may be depressed for years, if not longer, diminishing the country’s economic growth, global influence and its cherished role as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.
This is likely to be true even if the next president tries to roll back, one by one, every single action Trump has taken.
The immigration system is effectively two separate systems — one that deals with legal immigrants, and another with those who are not authorized to be in the country. (Some people, such as those who enter without permission as a means to request asylum, straddle both systems.) In recent years, more than 1 million people have received legal permanent residence (i.e., officially “immigrated”) annually, with an additional 9 million or so receiving temporary “nonimmigrant” visas to study, travel, work and so on.
The vast majority of immigrants living in the United States came here legally. Only about a quarter of the foreign-born are unauthorized; that is, they either crossed a border unlawfully or — much more often — overstayed their visas.
For years, the overall population of legal immigrants has been growing while the population of unauthorized immigrants has been shrinking. Since the housing bubble burst in 2007 — well before Trump took office — more undocumented people have been leaving the country than have been arriving. Despite these trends, the president has repeatedly suggested the country is being overrun by “illegals.”
From the start, Trump’s rhetoric has targeted these undocumented immigrants.
The president — the son and grandson of immigrants — says he has no problem with people who come to America “the right way” and “obey the laws.” “I want people to come in,” Trump said during the 2016 campaign. “I want tremendous numbers of people to come in, and we are going to have that big, beautiful door in the wall.”
This turned out to be a big, beautiful lie. Under the leadership of Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief adviser on immigration matters, administration officials have been ordered to “close every opening, shut every door, close every loophole and then some,” according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official quoted in Jean Guerrero’s chilling new biography of Miller, “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.” Every immigrant possible — whether here lawfully or not, professional-class or blue-collar, entrepreneur or scientist, adult or toddler — would be rejected, deported or repelled.
To the extent that Americans are aware of such policy changes, they’re probably only familiar with the more gothic, telegenic horrors — particularly those visited upon unauthorized immigrants.
That is: the nursing babies separated from their mothers when they crossed the border, amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family-separations policy for asylum-seekers; the abrupt deportations of undocumented immigrants who were otherwise law-abiding pillars of their communities, some of whose U.S.-citizen spouses even voted for Trump; or the initial, chaotic implementation of the Muslim ban (later rebranded a nondenominational “travel ban”).
So, Trump officials simultaneously pursued another strategy for keeping out legal immigrants, one that’s more resilient to public opinion because few realize it exists: They built a barrier not of steel and reptiles but of paperwork.
The legal immigration system, to be clear, has long been broken. But since Trump took office, his aides have undertaken some 450 mostly technical, executive actions that have disfigured the system almost beyond recognition. Some changes rig the criteria for who counts as a “good” immigrant so that virtually no one qualifies. Some essentially try to trick still-eligible applicants into filling out their paperwork incorrectly. Yet others involve the government simply failing to process applications or issue new documents, in at least one case blaming “printer problems.”
These shifts, among countless others, mean that to reach Trump’s “big, beautiful door,” immigrants must now navigate an obstacle course crisscrossed by riddles and red tape.