E.g., 02/27/2024
E.g., 02/27/2024
The Trump Immigration Plan: A Lopsided Proposal
Glyn Lowe

The Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts in legal immigration, unlike any seen since the Immigration Act of 1924, as part of its price tag to legalize the DREAMers who were eligible for a deportation-relief program killed by President Trump. In a one-page framework, which may be dead on arrival in Congress, the White House is pressing to cut family-sponsored immigration by as much as 40 percent and enact sweeping enhancements to border security and interior enforcement in exchange for legalizing less than one-sixth of the unauthorized population.

Under the plan, Americans would lose the right to petition for their parents, adult or married children, or siblings to join them, allowing them only to reunite with spouses and minor children. And legal permanent residents, who have had more limited ability to reunify with relatives, would no longer be able to petition for their adult children. The effects would be greatest for parents of U.S. citizens, who received 59 percent of the green cards in the categories slated for elimination under the White House proposal.

Table 1. Green Cards Granted in Family-Based Categories Proposed for Elimination by White House, FY 2016

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2016 (Washington, DC: DHS, 2017), www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2016.

The framework states that the changes would apply prospectively, and those waiting in backlogs in these categories would still be able to immigrate, if approved. However, it could take decades to process the applications in each of these backlogs. According to the State Department, as of November 1, 2017, there were 3.7 million individuals waiting in the categories listed for elimination. And this number may be an undercount for several reasons, including that it does not reflect individuals who have requested green-card processing within the United States.

The White House also is seeking to eliminate the diversity visa lottery, and repurpose those 50,000 green cards to reduce the family and employment-based backlogs. The lottery opens a path to immigration from countries that send few immigrants to the United States, and is currently used primarily by nationals from countries in Africa, Central and Western Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Together, these family-sponsored and diversity categories proposed for elimination made up one-third of all new green-card holders in fiscal year (FY) 2016. These cuts align with those proposed by the Trump-endorsed RAISE Act—whose authors estimated their bill would eventually lead to a 50 percent reduction in legal immigration. They also are in line with those proposed in the Securing America’s Future Act drafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), which House conservatives are pressing to bring up for a vote.

Even as President Trump has frequently called for a move to “merit-based” immigration, the proposal includes no changes in the allocation of visas to favor immigration by those with high education and skills. While family-based and diversity visa applicants are not selected on the basis of high educational attainment, recent Migration Policy Institute (MPI) findings show that nearly half of all recent immigrants, through all streams, have a college degree—a significant increase over earlier arrivals and the U.S.-born population. Paradoxically, the ultimate effect of the White House’s proposed legal immigration changes would be to reduce immigration of highly skilled workers.


The White House framework includes a long list of immigration enforcement provisions, many of which are vague but seem to align with prior proposals from the administration. Some could markedly increase deportations, while others could substantially reduce the ability of humanitarian immigrants to enter the United States.

Interior enforcement. The White House seeks several measures to increase and speed up removals of unauthorized immigrants. First, it would appropriate funds to hire Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys, and immigration judges. From the inauguration through September 30, removals in the U.S. interior increased 37 percent over the same period in 2016; still, they remain far below their levels in the 2008-2011 period.

Deportations are strongly limited by the speed at which immigrants in removal proceedings have their cases heard by an immigration judge. Increasing the number of ICE attorneys and immigration judges would increase the capacity to process people for removal. The one-pager also suggests, without detailing, immigration court reforms to speed removal proceedings.

In addition, the White House proposal suggests expanding expedited removal—a program that allows certain noncitizens to be removed quickly without the chance to appeal their case in court. Taken together, these measures would likely result in a shrinking of the population of roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. If 2017 trends continue, a rising share of those arrested and removed will be those without a criminal record.

Border security. Just as it did for interior enforcement, the framework provides few details on the intended changes for border security, though it does specify a $25 billion trust fund for “the border wall system,” ports of entry/exit, and northern border improvements.

The framework vaguely refers to enacting reforms to hiring and pay to ensure retention of “critically needed personnel.” This is likely a reference to the hiring difficulties encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It is notoriously difficult both to hire and to retain Border Patrol agents. The hiring process includes a lengthy polygraph exam that two-thirds of applicants fail. It takes more than nine months on average to hire a new agent. And while the agency hires approximately 523 agents per year, it also loses an average of 904 agents.

The White House proposal refers to ending “catch and release.” The term has no clear definition, but as used by the President appears to refer to a series of federal policies and practices that allow unaccompanied minors, some families, and some asylum seekers to be released into the community during their asylum and/or removal proceedings. While we do not know how the administration intends to address this issue, it could involve detaining these groups while they wait for their day in court, or refusing entry to large numbers of people. During FY 2017, 41,435 unaccompanied children and 75,622 family units were apprehended at the Southwest border. In the same year, there were 24,377 applications by asylum seekers at U.S. ports of entry (some of whom may also be counted as families).

The framework likely proposes an additional change to the treatment of unaccompanied child migrants. Currently, while most Mexican children are quickly returned to Mexico, U.S. law provides for different treatment for unaccompanied child migrants from noncontiguous countries. These children are transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and are simultaneously placed into longer-term removal proceedings. The vast majority are released by ORR into the care of a parent, relative, or family friend in the United States while they wait for their cases to progress slowly through the U.S. immigration court system. In FY 2017, 42,416 minors were released to sponsors throughout the United States.

By proposing prompt removals, “regardless of country of origin,” the framework is likely suggesting the elimination of the special treatment currently given to children from noncontiguous countries, meaning that they would be quickly screened for risk of human trafficking or a specific fear to return home, and turned back at the border, as Mexican children are now.

Sweeping Changes to the Legal Immigration System and Enforcement for What?

The White House demands are in exchange for a solution that addresses a fraction of the U.S. unauthorized population. The proposal outlines a path to legal status and citizenship for those who were eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, whether or not they applied or received DACA protections. The one-pager specifies this population could reach 1.8 million people.

While the administration did not explain how it reached those numbers, MPI has long provided estimates of the population potentially eligible for DACA, finding that slightly more than 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants met the criteria to apply or could in the future, given additional educational enrollment or aging in to eligibility.

MPI estimates that about 1.3 million DREAMers met all the criteria to apply for DACA under its original rules, with another 408,000 eligible if they met the educational requirements, and 120,000 would be eligible upon turning 15 provided they remain in school. How many of these 1.85 million DREAMers would be eligible for initial protections under the White House plan and how many could earn green cards and eventually citizenship would depend on the exact work, education, public charge, and other requirements.

This represents just a portion of the total DREAMer population. MPI estimates that 3,652,000 unauthorized immigrants entered the United States before the age of 18, representing about 33 percent of the unauthorized population. The DREAMer legalization proposals gaining the most attention in Congress, the SUCCEED Act and DREAM Act of 2017, would provide conditional permanent residence to an estimated 1.6 million to 2.1 million DREAMers respectively, with an estimated 1.3 million to 1.7 million expected to progress to a green card under those plans.

In contrast, the Securing America’s Future Act, offered as House conservatives’ counterpoint to the DREAM-type bills, would offer only temporary protections to current DACA holders who are under age 31. That population was 614,900 as of September.

A Lopsided Proposal

The White House plan proposes to vastly reshape and reduce the legal immigration system, in particular by taking aim at family reunification, with no recognition of the role that legal immigration plays in meeting labor force needs across the skills spectrum. The administration’s wish list would greatly expand enforcement efforts at the border and in the U.S. interior, and would reduce protections for asylum seekers and unaccompanied child migrants. These major changes to the country’s immigration system are offered in exchange for a path to legal status for a small slice of the country’s unauthorized population. The plan represents a lopsided deal: a vehicle to enact sweeping, hardline reforms in the guise of a bill for DREAMers.