Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part I: Legal High-Skilled Migrants and the Diversity Program

Yesterday morning in my blog I wrote, “Trump’s nativist demagoguery, though relatively brief, was on full display in his State of the Union address last evening.” It seemed straightforward and uncontroversial when I wrote it. Evidently not! Was DT’s demagoguery not “relatively brief”? Some believed that, in the SOUA, DT went on too long and revealed his continuing obsession and fear of migrants. Others contended that DT’s demagoguery was not on full display for a change.

I will dissect his comments in this and a subsequent blog and you judge. Thankfully, I am helped somewhat by the fact checkers at CNN and The Washington Post and many scholars and journalists who concentrate on immigration and refugee issues.

In his SOUA, DT stated unequivocally, I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Did The Donald ever give you the impression that he loved migration into the U.S., wanted much more of it, but only on the condition that the migrants enter legally? It is one thing to attempt to build a wall against migrants attempting to cross a border illegally because you believe they are criminals and rapists. It is another matter to build an administrative wall, a very high one, against legal migrants, in an effort that seems to belie DT’s new line that he wants people to come to America “in the largest numbers ever.”

First, this line was adlibbed. It was not included in the copy of the State of the Union Address that was circulated to journalists. And, of course, it was noticed by immigration advocates and experts because it seemed to be directly at odds with the policies DT put in place in the first two years of his presidency. It was no surprise then that in the briefing that followed with reporters, DT was asked whether the remark signalled a change in policy.

“Yes,” was his answer, effectively admitting that in the previous two years he had introduced policies to limit legal immigration, quite aside from his efforts against illegal migrants. Trump offered an explanation for the change. “(W)e need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low, and we have massive numbers of companies coming back into our country.” He had signalled this new line a week earlier at a meeting on human trafficking on the southern border, with an additional qualification. “We really need people, but it has to be through a legal process and a process really of merit.” (my italics)

Lobbyists who were nativists or who opposed large scale immigration for other reasons also noted the policy shift. Ira Mehlman, the spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, greeted the change by dubbing it “bad public policy” and a reversal of previous presidential positions. “Mass immigration, legal or illegal, undermines the jobs and wages of many Americans, overburdens vital social institutions and the social safety net. The president seems to be ignoring the impact of excessive immigration on American society.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also noted the change, but welcomed it “as the unemployment rate has fallen and businesses have struggled to fill job openings.” For those who favoured the change, the issue remained: what was deemed a meritorious migration increase based on merit? Was the merit one simply of need? Then an increase in the guest worker program demanded by employers might suffice with no route to citizenship. On the other hand, if merit applied to the skills of the immigrant applicants, then a very different policy would follow encouraging highly skilled migration to the U.S. Since guest worker programs in the U.S., though legal migratory programs, usually do not entail any path to permanent residency and/or citizenship, my focus in this blog will be on legal immigration and not on legal migration with respect to guest workers.

The policy shift, even if it was one – and, given DT’s record of reversals when his nativist base is aroused, one might remain suspicious – left open the meaning of meritorious legal migration. Look at the record of the first two years of the administration for clues. It certainly does not seem to include fostering family reunification, even though the possibility of family reunification is a key component when highly skilled individuals consider migrating anywhere.

What has the Trump administration policy been towards family reunification? Trump has repeatedly complained about chain migration and the family reunification policies that enhance chain migration. Immigration advocates argue that reuniting families through the immigration system is humane and contributes to stability, prosperity, and stronger communities. They could also argue that it enhances the migration patterns of the highly skilled. Trump policies have curtailed family reunification by cutting the number of eligible categories, including parental and adult children sponsorship. It should be no surprise that the excision of categories disproportionately affects minority migration. So do other administrative practices.

I am not here concerned with DT’s well-publicized efforts to divide families without any legal status. If Trump plans to increase the entry of highly skilled workers, why did his administration enact policies that planned to revoke spousal working permits for migrants traveling on the high-skilled H-1B visas? Why would you have policies that restrict family reunification only to minority-aged children when the highly-skilled are very concerned with the well-being of their parents as well as their adult children? Further, programs that restrict parental and adult children sponsorship have a much greater effect on highly-skilled migrants from Third World countries.

Other administrative measures significantly slowed down the processing of family-based immigration applications. The processing of green card or permanent residency applications has significantly slowed down. DT campaigned to lower overall immigration. I am not talking just of non-immediate relative family reunification applications that fell from the adjudication of just 22% of applicants in 2016 to only 9% in 2017. Immediate relative application processing fell from 67% in 2016 to 54% in 2017. The backlog has increased 35% to over 800,000 petitions.

Trump has kept Stephen Miller, his most strident member of the White House advocating strict immigration limits, in place. There appears to be a contradiction between encouraging high-skilled immigration and increased restrictions on family reunification. Other administrative measures suggest that practices have been put in place that undermine any effort to increase the number of highly-skilled immigrants.

For example, the Department of Homeland Security has made it mandatory that all applicants for employment-based permanent residency have personal interviews. Further, H-1B visas were to be only issued to the most highly skilled and to the highest-paid beneficiaries. Extension or renewal of green cards are no longer processed as routine, but are processed as if they were applications de novo. The above changes are just the tip of the iceberg. Specialty occupations are being redefined to make them much more restrictive. Additional hoops and requirements have been added.  And this is ostensibly an anti-regulatory administration!

This is not simply a Trump immigration policy but a Republican one. See the 2015 Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority which overtly argued for severe cuts in overall immigration levels. But that policy specifically targeted guest workers, suggesting that Trump’s policy reversal to support increased levels would only apply to the highl-skilled. But, again, if so, why the increased restrictions on family reunification when that is one key to attracting highly-skilled migrants? The arguments above not only question the sincerity and/or consistency with which Donald Trump is pushing for increased immigration, but even question the coherence of a program ostensibly aimed at encouraging immigration of the very highly skilled. As constructed, it suggests that Trump sincerely wants greater highly-skilled immigration, but possibly not if those immigrants come from countries that will increase the proportion of minorities within the U.S.

This interpretation is reinforced by Trump policies with respect to the Diversity Visa Program. That program allows prospective migrants from countries with a record of low immigration to the U.S. to enter a lottery to apply for permanent residency. Trump has repeatedly tried to end that lottery system that benefits the migration of minorities, particularly migrants from Africa.

In Part II, I will consider the legal migration of those who want to apply for Convention refugee status in the U.S. However, I want to leave the reader with a teaser. There is a great deal of literature that suggests that increased diversity in a population, to the surprise of many, reduces support for refugees. (See, for example, Liza G. Steele and Lamis Abdelaaty 2018 study,”Ethnic diversity and attitudes towards refugees,” in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies which, with some exceptions, supports this finding. See also the European Social Survey, the World Bank Development Indicators, and the Manifesto Project Dataset.) The greater the ethnic diversity, the more that new refugee arrivals are viewed as a threat. If that is the case, Donald Trump, if he opposes the arrival of Convention refugee applicants at U.S. legal entry points, logically should support greater diversity in the intake of legal economic migrants. The above analysis suggests that he does not blog. Why?

One might expect that the greater contact between and among different ethnic groups enhances support for refugees. In the next I want to not only analyze and dissect Trump’s policies towards refugees, but also do so in conjunction with his alleged biases on the one hand (after all, I alleged that Trump’s demagoguery was on full display in his State of the Union Address) and the predisposition of many American constituents on the other hand.

To be continued.

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