In President Donald Trump’s February 5 State of the Union Address, he all but strayed from his unwavering stance that there is a national crisis at the southern U.S.-Mexico border, due to the supposed illicit crossing of immigrants who threaten “the safety, security, and financial well-being of all America”. Trump did, however, voice his favor for legal immigration, and the responsibility the U.S. has to protect those who have entered the country legally. Following a 35-day partial government shutdown, triggered by the refusal of Democrats to meet Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a US-Mexico border wall, that ended on January 25, Trump’s address came just ten days before the February 15 deadline for congressional leaders to reach a deal on border security, possibly preventing another shutdown. As that deadline approaches, let’s take a closer look at the “crisis” at the southern border, as well as how Trump’s policies since in office have impacted legal immigration.
CRISIS AT THE BORDER – is it there?
Trump’s unrelenting promise to curb illegal immigration during his campaign has continued into his presidency, as his administration seeks to gain support, by way of funding, for a 2,000-mile wall spanning the length of the US-Mexico border. The wall, as he sees it, is essential to blockade the “caravans” of illegal immigrants arriving at the southern border. In addition to the demand for the wall, Trump has deployed around 6,000 active-duty troops to the border. But let’s take a step back. What does this “crisis” look like in way of numbers?
As Figure 1 shows, the total apprehensions of undocumented immigrants along the southwest border is at its lowest in decades. Apprehensions peaked in 2000, when more than 1.6 million people were caught by border patrollers, but have steadily decreased, reaching 303,916 in 2017, the lowest since 1971 (263,991). Apprehensions rose in 2018 to 396,579, but still remain much lower than the early 2000s. Of these, a significant increase in border crossers originate from the Northern Triangle States in Central America. Many of them are family units and unaccompanied children who, upon arrival at the southern border, present themselves and request political asylum.
Moreover, while Trump draws attention to the alleged “lawless state of our southern border”, the overall stock in U.S. undocumented population between 2008 and 2014 has been steadily declining1. A 2017 report analyzed the mode of arrival of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014, finding that two-thirds entered the U.S. legally, but went on to overstay their visas. Since 2007, visa overstays have outnumbered illegal border crossings each year, representing the main way of entering the undocumented population. This trend, the report cites, will most likely continue.
Despite low apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the southwest border, as well as data indicating that the majority of undocumented immigrants arrive legally to the U.S. and then overstay their visas, Trump’s depiction of illegal immigrants storming the southwest has been implemented into a crackdown at the border. Yet, such rhetoric and policies are at odds with the reality at the border, which if analyzed through numbers, reveals no crisis.
LEGAL MIGRATION – is Trump really in favor?
As Trump declares a "humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border" and promises to curb illegal immigration, his approach to establishing an immigration system that favors legal immigration to the U.S. appears bleak. Take for example the administration’s handling of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), established with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. Since then, the programme has admitted over 3 million refugees to the U.S. However, as shown in Figure 2, between 2016 and 2018 (the years of the Trump presidency) U.S. refugee resettlement fell by over 60,000 (a reduction of almost 75%), and the administration announced in September 2018 that the refugee admissions for FY 2019 would not exceed a ceiling of 30,000, the lowest in the program’s history.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed the need for this new ceiling to the large number of asylum seekers and the backlog of outstanding asylum cases overwhelming the immigration system in the U.S. Although similar backlogs occurred in the early 1990s, refugee resettlement was not forfeited to make up for the large number of asylum cases. Additionally, studies show that – at least in the U.S. – refugees integrate into local communities through economic self-sufficiency at high rates2, and are often instrumental to community revitalization, especially in rustbelt cities like Akron, Ohio3.
The administration’s slashing of refugee admissions to historically low levels reflects a broader attempt to cut legal immigration programs like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Central American Minors (CAM) program and the Temporary Protected Status (TPS)4. However, Trump’s SOTU proclamation that he “wants[s] people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally” does not reflect the 37% increase in denials of immigration applications in the first nine months of FY2018 (see Figure 3).
This increased rate of denial did not spare skilled immigrants. For example, for advanced parole applications – which allow skilled immigrants to temporary travel abroad with advanced permission to reenter the country – the denial rate almost tripled from 7% to 18%. By the same token, in 2017 Trump endorsed a failed Senate Bill to limit green card distributions to just above 500,000, down from one million. Against this backdrop, Trump’s policies can be seen to have decreased not only illegal immigration, but overall migration into the U.S. – on the opposite, had the attempt to halve green card numbers succeeded, legal migration would have been brought down even further.
WHERE THIS LEAVES US
Despite the rhetoric of stopping illegal immigrants, while opening up ways for immigrants to legally enter and remain in the U.S., Trump’s policies do not appear to show that he is adequately addressing either, as (1) for illegal immigration, there is no proven “crisis” at the border; and (2) legal immigration has grown more restrictive over the past two years.
Rhetorically, Trump plays up the difference between legal and illegal immigrants, by expressing his support for those who enter and stay in the country legally. Yet, his words are starkly contradicted by his enacted or preferred policies.
As negotiations to reach a bipartisan deal on border security ahead of Friday’s deadline are in the works, is another government shutdown imminent?
1 Warren, Robert. 2016. “US Undocumented Population Drops Below 11 Million in 2014, with Continued Declines in the Mexican Undocumented Population.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 4(1):1-15.
2 “In FY 2015, 67 percent of the 29,765 refugee participants in the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement (HHS/ORR) Matching Grant public-private partnership program achieved economic self-sufficiency within 120 days and 82 percent within 180 days” (HHS/ORR 2017, 20).
3 NAE (New American Economy). 2016. “Welcome to Akron: How Immigrants and Refugees Are Contributing to Akron’s Economic Growth.” New York: NAE.
4 Kerwin, Donald. 2017. “The Besieged US Refugee Protection System: Why Temporary Protected Status Matters” CMS Essays. New York: Center for Migration Studies.