NEARLY FOUR years ago, in a campaign speech in Arizona, Donald Trump set out a ten-point plan for reshaping a chaotic immigration system. Beyond building a wall and deporting more foreigners, he vowed America would “choose immigrants based on merit”, while imposing controls “to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first”. “Doesn’t that sound nice?” he asked the whooping crowd. “It’s going to happen, folks.”
To a remarkable extent he has since found ways to choke off inflows of foreigners. Before coronavirus, his administration cut arrivals of undocumented migrants, most effectively by striking a deal last year with Mexico’s government to prevent central Americans reaching the border and claiming asylum. It has greatly reduced the number of official resettlement opportunities for refugees, a programme in which America had led the rest of the world for decades. It also made it harder for those inside America to apply for the green cards that allow them to live and work in the country. Now it is using the pandemic-induced economic slump to justify a clampdown on new, legal migrant inflows.
A broad executive order issued on June 22nd covers would-be migrants (those inside the country are unaffected) who seek a chance to work in America. It will keep them out at least until the end of the year. Citing high unemployment, it suspends new issuance of four types of visa: H-1Bs, widely used by employees at tech companies; H-2Bs, for lower-skilled, often outdoor workers; J visas, for au pairs, temporary summer workers and some academics; and L visas, for professionals relocated within companies. The order follows one in April which suspended the granting of visas to some categories of permanent immigrants. The politics of this are obvious. Mr Trump wants voters focused on immigration for his re-election campaign. He sees Democrats as vulnerable on the issue, caught between a noisy left wing of border-abolishing activists and those, in blue-collar areas, worried about inflows. He also wants to stop others in his party outflanking him on the anti-immigration right. Four senators—Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Charles Grassley—had demanded in May that he both suspend temporary employment-based immigration and a scheme called Optional Practical Training, which lets foreign graduates stay and work for a few years after college. Mr Trump may do that next month. Next could be regulatory reforms, perhaps to limit future H-1B visas to higher-paid workers.
The practical impact of the changes is harder to pin down. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington says 29,000 people entered the country on H-1B visas in the second half of 2019. Two-thirds of such visas are issued to workers in the tech industry, many of them from India. Another 72,000 people had expected to travel this summer on J-1 “exchange visitor” visas, typically used for temporary summer jobs. In theory, therefore, the new rules could affect hundreds of thousands, including highly skilled professionals, who had planned to come to America this year.
Were Mr Trump to be re-elected in November, more of the same should be expected in a second term. Sarah Pierce, at MPI, points out that the pandemic “has created an opening” for him to act more forcefully, summing up the latest order as a “wild action” and “the most severe action this administration had taken against immigration” so far. It is significant, too, that the order is framed as a response to the economic slump—if high unemployment lasts it should be easy to use the same pretext to justify extending the order.
It all amounts to a dramatic change of policy. In reality, however, few visas were anyway being issued, after consulates suspended work during the pandemic. It is also impossible to know how strictly the order will be implemented. Demetrios Papademetriou, a migration expert, also at MPI, says “you can drive a truck through” an order given enough waivers, as this one has. The order refers vaguely to preserving the “national interest”. Workers who are exempt include those necessary for the secure supply of food, for medical research or the battle against covid-19, or most generally for reasons of “economic recovery”. They could turn out to be numerous indeed, but statistics on that are unlikely to be known before the end of the year.
Does that mean, therefore, that the order mostly serves to please Mr Trump’s base of voters, but in practice changes little? Heavy lobbying by tech and other companies who import large numbers of workers, as well as from universities that rely heavily on foreign students and staff, will follow, in the hope of promoting exactly that outcome. They and others argue that economic recovery can be speedier if America imports talented workers to do jobs that locals are not equipped to do. Google’s boss, Sundar Pichai, spoke for many when he tweeted: “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech…Disappointed by today’s proclamation.”
Mr Papademetriou, who advises many governments on migration policy, says a broad change in attitude is under way in “dozens of countries”. “This is an end of an era of easy immigration,” he says. America is not alone in tightening its rules on the arrival of foreign workers; the pandemic is speeding up the changes. He expects some significant tightening of restrictions around the world. The lesson from Mr Trump’s speech in Arizona, in 2016, is to take seriously what is promised. But even if Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, becomes president in November, don’t expect a full return to the system of old.
Correction: This article originally said that 169,000 people entered America on an H-1B visa in the second half of 2019.