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From the White House, one last push to impede immigrants

Through more than 400 regulatory changes, Trump has succeeded in slashing legal immigration by half.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

Donald Trump came to the White House waving an anti-immigration banner. He’s going out the same way.

Politico reported Monday that the Trump administration in its final weeks is pursuing a round of policy changes that will make it easier for officials to deny employment visas to immigrants and make it harder to acquire US citizenship.

Beginning this week, the number of questions on the citizenship test is increasing from 100 to 128. On Nov. 17, the Department of Homeland Security announced that federal officials will have broader authority to approve or deny green card applications, using an expanded list of “discretionary factors” to determine whether an applicant’s “conduct, character, family or other lawful ties to the United States” warrant permanent residence status.


The administration has published a proposed new rule to withhold work permits from immigrants who are legally subject to deportation but are not in custody. Also in the works are additional restrictions on H-1B high-skilled-worker visas — restrictions that will not only reduce the types of jobs foreign workers can apply for, but also mandate higher wages for those who do get hired.

Note that the White House is not focusing this final flurry of changes and restrictions only on immigrants who entered the country illegally. The Trump administration is using its executive authority to impede legal immigration, too. Just as it has been doing for the past four years.

It is a popular myth on the right that while Trump strongly opposes foreigners who come to the United States without permission, he welcomes lawful immigrants. Trump himself has sometimes taken pains to further that impression. He has told supporters that he wants to have a “big, beautiful door” in the wall along the southern border he has long championed. In last year’s State of the Union address, Trump claimed: “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”


But that’s never been true. Through changes large and small, Trump has pressed from the outset to reduce the number of people permitted to immigrate to America.

Just days after taking office, the president signed an order banning visas to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. He has steadily tightened the number of refugees annually permitted to enter the United States — it’s now at 15,000, a record low. When Trump notoriously scorned people admitted from “sh**hole countries,” he was referring to legal immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa. His “Remain in Mexico” policy compelled tens of thousands of Latin American migrants lawfully seeking asylum to wait in refugee camps outside the United States while the legal process slowly inched forward — so slowly that about half of those affected abandoned their plea for asylum. To exclude even more asylum-seekers, the administration imposed a rule denying eligibility to anyone passing through any country but their own to reach the United States.

The White House found more ways to keep lawful immigrants out. It adopted a new wealth test for green card applicants. It unilaterally barred immigrants from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria, citing “security” concerns. It excluded Sudan and Tanzania, two of Africa’s largest countries, from the annual “diversity visa” lottery. It exploited the coronavirus pandemic to issue an executive order “suspend[ing] all immigration into the United States.” In April, it issued yet another order, temporarily cutting off family-based immigration in order to “conserve vital medical resources for American citizens.” It raised the denial rate on petitions for high-skilled immigrant visas from 6 percent to 30 percent.


All told, through more than 400 regulatory changes in immigration policy, Trump has succeeded in slashing legal immigration by half. Repeat: legal immigration.

It can be hard to remember now, but Trump succeeded a president who was, for most of his time in office, the harshest enforcer of immigration laws in US history. Barack Obama’s administration expelled so many undocumented immigrants that he was bitterly labeled the “deporter in chief” by the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy organization. Yet so extreme has Trump’s anti-immigrant animus been, and so relentlessly has it been executed, that his predecessor in retrospect seems almost moderate.

Obama, after all, only targeted immigrants who were here illegally. Trump has gone after them all.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit