By the time his term of office ends on January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will have reduced immigration to the United States by more than half. He has managed to accomplish all of this through executive order and regulatory changes, without any change in statutory law — and therefore no need for cooperation from Congress.

The timing of this decrease in immigration makes it obvious that nowhere near all of it can be attributed to the COVID-19 crisis.

The administration has erected so many walls against immigration, both literally and figuratively, that it would be impossible to list them all succinctly. All told, Trump issued more than 400 executive orders and actions, each of them with significant impact. Some of the highlights (or, perhaps better put, lowlights) are listed below.

Border Control Measures

The Trump legacy begins at the US border. Some of the administration’s more objectionable policies include:

  • Implementing a “Muslim travel ban” under which nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Venezuela were banned from entering the US on the basis of nationality alone;
  • Closing the land border with Mexico, ostensibly for the purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19;
  • Placing detained undocumented immigrants in cages; and
  • Separating parents from their children at the border (since rescinded after a public outcry).


Asylum claims have been rapidly increasing since before Trump took office. The Trump legacy, however, includes:

  • Rendering migrants ineligible for asylum at the border — they must apply for asylum en route to the US;
  • Implementing the “remain in Mexico” policy that required asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims were being adjudicated (resulting in tent cities popping up on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande river);
  • Entering into agreements with Central American countries (from which most recent asylum seekers originate) erecting barriers to asylum claims. and
  • Ending Temporary Protected Status for nationals of Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan;

All told, these measures eliminate asylum as an option for most of those who seek it.

Refugee Admissions

The Trump years have also been dismal for refugees:

  • Refugee admissions dropped to a little over 20,000 in 2018, slightly less than a quarter of the number admitted in 2016, and the lowest since the modern refugee program began in 1980.
  • Trump also lowered the refugee admission ceiling to 18,000.
  • Refugee admissions in the first half of 2020 plummeted to 7,754.

Interior Enforcement

Trump’s immigration initiatives did not stop at the border. Despite the Obama administration’s prioritizing of the apprehension of undocumented aliens with criminal records, Trump issued an executive order targeting all undocumented undocumented immigrants, even those not suspected of criminal activity. As a consequence, 36 percent of the undocumented immigrants arrested had no prior criminal record, compared to 14 percent in 2016.

Other actions taken by the Trump administration include:

  • Assigning hundreds of Border Patrol and ICE agents to ten “sanctuary cities” to apprehend undocumented immigrants;
  • Conducting 24/7 surveillance operations around the homes and workplaces of undocumented immigrants (since rescinded due to the COVID-19 pandemic);.
  • Packing the nation’s immigration courts with anti-immigration judges, who have acted so aggressively that a backlog of more than 1 million cases has built up in the immigration court system;
  • Increasing the number of deportation orders by nearly 50 percent; and
  • Allowing private, profit-seeking companies to manage immigration detention centers, resulting in widespread reports of human rights violations.

DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals)

The Obama administration offered forbearance to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children. The Trump administration has offered them little more than hostility by canceling DACA protections, thereby putting immigrants who arrived in the US as children in danger of deportation.

This hostility has affected up to 500,000 undocumented immigrants. Even after the courts thwarted this policy, the Trump administration instituted a policy of denying all first-time applications and granting renewals for only one year at a time.

Modified “Public Charge” Rule

The Trump administration has strengthened the “public charge rule”, making it much easier to deny immigration benefits, including permanent residence, to an applicant based on poverty or use of public benefits. The new rules are so onerous that the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that nearly 70 percent of green card applicants are now at risk of denial on public charge grounds alone.

In addition to the foregoing innovation, the Trump administration has also ramped up enforcement of financial support commitments made by US sponsors of immigrants.

International Students

The Trump administration has initiated several unprecedented policies that make it more difficult for international students to study in the United States, including:

  • Refusing to allow international students attending schools that hold classes entirely online (due to COVID-19 concerns) to be issued a nonimmigrant visa, to even enter the US to study, or to remain in the US for the “duration of study” period of the F-1 student visa.
  • Placing barriers that make it difficult for international students to work in the US after graduation (articularly in H1B status), thereby deterring them from coming to the US in the first place; and
  • Turning down a large proportion of F-1 (student) visas, especially for students from China.

Nonimmigrant Visas

The USCIS and the Department of Labor have increased their scrutiny of nonimmigrant applications for employment-based visas, including both the H-1B and the L-1, among others. Denials of H-1B nonimmigrant visa applications, for example, have more than doubled.

The Trump administration has also narrowed the scope of eligibility for the visa. Entry-level computer programmers, for example, normally do not qualify for H-1B status any longer.

Other hostile measures include:

  • Eliminating deference to prior approvals, so that H-1B applicants don’t face an easier approval process the second time around; and
  • Suspension of Premium Processing services, thereby increasing average wait times.

Employment-Based Immigrant Visas

The Trump administration’s hostility towards employment-based immigrant visa applicants (many of whom are highly qualified) is reflected in recent policy adjustments:

  • Interviews are now mandatory, regardless of whether the applicant is seeking a visa abroad or is seeking to adjust status within the United States;
  • The minimum investment amount for EB-5 applications (green card through capital investment) has been increased from $1 million to $1.8 million for investments in most of the US, and from $500,000 to $900,000 for investments in “targeted employment areas.:

It is worth repeating that the above-described hostile immigration policies are just the tip of the iceberg, and that all of this was accomplished without Congressional approval. The new Biden administration can reverse some of the policies with the stroke of a pen — but others will take considerably longer to implement.

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