What would it mean for U.S. immigration policy if, on January 20, 2025, Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States? Many people expect a crackdown on illegal immigration. However, recent clues and past actions indicate the more significant impact of a second Trump presidency would be on legal immigration, including the admission of refugees, family immigrants and high-skilled professionals.
Personnel Is Policy: “Former President Trump’s top allies are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his ‘America First’ ideology . . . The heart of the plan is derived from an executive order known as “Schedule F,” according to Axios. The publication also reported American Moment, a pro-Trump group, wants to replace current federal workers with “applicants who want to cut not just illegal but also legal immigration into the U.S.”
It is easy to see how this would result in more restrictive immigration policies. After White House adviser Stephen Miller received pushback the first year he reduced the annual refugee cap, at least one career government employee was reassigned so the individual could not interfere in the future, according to Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear.
With the power to hire and fire civil servants, Trump officials could fill the federal government with anti-immigrant personnel. If immigrants, businesses and attorneys complain now about U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), they should consider what agency processing would look like after an anti-immigrant litmus test is imposed on USCIS employees during a Trump-Miller second term.
Trump Likely To Fail Again To Reduce Illegal Immigration: In a second term, in the name of combating illegal immigration, Trump administration officials would attempt to enact nearly every restrictive immigration measure considered in recent years. This would include eliminating the practical ability to apply for asylum after crossing the southern border, building more of “the wall,” increasing the use of expedited removal and other policies.
Given that Donald Trump failed to reduce illegal immigration the first time around, there is no reason to believe similar policies would succeed if tried again. During the Trump administration, between FY 2016 and FY 2019, apprehensions at the Southwest border (a proxy for illegal entry) increased from 408,870 to 851,508—a rise of more than 100 percent. While the Covid-19 pandemic caused apprehensions to decline for several months starting in March 2020, by August and September 2020, apprehensions had resumed at the approximate level of illegal entry seen during the same months in FY 2019. In short, Donald Trump’s policies failed to reduce illegal immigration and were enacted at a great human cost, particularly for parents and children separated at the border.
The Biden administration, in large measure, continued Trump’s border policies, namely Title 42, which allows individuals to be expelled without further processing. Title 42 is supposed to be a public health measure but has been used to prevent many people from applying for asylum. The policies have boosted Border Patrol apprehensions and encouraged people to enter unlawfully, often multiple times, likely making the border more problematic. A federal judge has ordered the Biden administration to keep Title 42 in place.
Department of Homeland Security reports show over the years tighter enforcement has significantly increased the number of immigrants who use human smugglers to cross the border (i.e., virtually everyone crossing now employs smugglers). The policies have also resulted in an increased loss of life. In July 2022, 53 immigrants suffocated inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio.
Opposition To Legal Immigration: Ironically, the Trump administration is likely to try every measure to combat illegal entry but the one proven effective in reducing illegal entry: Making it easier to enter and work legally in the United States.
Research from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) found that a significant increase in the lawful admission of farm workers during the 1950s under the Bracero Program dramatically reduced illegal entry to America. Based on apprehensions at the border, unlawful entry across the southwest border declined by 95% between 1953 and 1959, as farm workers entered legally in greater numbers.
Trump Immigration Policies Will Likely Decimate Long-Term U.S. Economic Growth: Labor force growth is a crucial part of economic growth, without which Americans grow poorer or see their standard of living stagnate.
Those who argued that Donald Trump was only concerned about limiting illegal immigration have a problem—it’s not true. Unlike any president before him, Trump made broad use of executive authority under section 212(f) to restrict legal immigration and suspend the entry of many categories of immigrants and temporary visa holders. In 2020, this prevented the entry of workers and professionals on temporary visas, and immigrants on family, employment-based and Diversity visas. He also set the lowest refugee admissions ceiling of any president.
Given another term, expect refugee admissions to be extremely low and for Trump to use section 212(f) to bypass Congress and block the entry of many immigrants and visa holders. The ban on immigration from a number of majority Muslim countries could return.
The impact of Trump’s policies would be devastating to the nation’s future economic growth. A National Foundation for American Policy analysis concluded if Trump’s policies had continued, legal immigration would have been reduced in half, and “average annual labor force growth would be approximately 59% lower than compared to a policy of no immigration reductions.”
In 2021 and 2022, America saw the negative results of Trump’s immigration policies, with an estimated 2 million immigrant workers missing from the U.S. labor force blamed for reducing U.S. economic output and contributing to inflation. Another four years of similar policies would likely produce more negative results, potentially longer term, if enacted by legislation.
Trump Likely To Push More International Students And High-Skilled Professionals Away From The U.S.: During the Trump administration, many international students diverted away from the United States, primarily to Canada, and employers saw denial rates for H-1B petitions skyrocket. Expect America to lose talent in even more significant numbers should the entire Trump immigration agenda against highly educated foreign nationals come to fruition.
Businesses and universities should expect every idea or regulation the Trump administration failed to implement to be tried again. That would mean:
– New limits on who qualifies for an H-1B petition and how (and where) an H-1B visa holder can work;
– Requiring employers to pay well above-market wages for H-1B visa holders and employees sponsored for permanent residence;
– New restrictions on international students and Optional Practical Training (OPT), and other policies.
Between 2017 and 2020, attorneys representing businesses, universities and immigrant rights organizations successfully blocked several Trump policies. That task would become much more difficult the second time around since former Trump officials would have learned from their mistakes and have a fresh four years to implement restrictive immigration policies.
What Would A Different Republican President Do? A different Republican president, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, would likely adopt many of Trump’s policies on illegal immigration. However, DeSantis (or another Republican) might not allow Stephen Miller back in the White House. Without Miller, a different Republican president could adopt policies on legal immigration more consistent with the views of mainstream economists, particularly given the potential for Republican inroads with Asian and Latino voters.
New Limits On The Freedom Of Americans: Trump’s most significant policies will restrict legal immigration, which, economists note, will harm innovation and reduce economic growth in America. But the impact will be broader.
“An immigration restriction is a government ban on a wide variety of economic activities by natives,” according to economist Michael Clemens. By that standard, a second Trump term would mean less freedom for consumers who wish to enjoy products and services offered by immigrants, Americans who hope to sponsor family members and employers who want to hire foreign-born scientists and engineers to compete in the global economy.