Tucked within the 2019 State of the Union address, amidst Trump’s calls for a wall and pronouncements of a southern border crisis, was the following phrase: “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
That’s news to anyone who follows the (real) news. Contraction of legal immigration has been the administration’s stated priority from the start. In 2017, Trump announced plans to cut legal immigration by half. In 2018, the administration stood by its plan, with suggestions for eliminating the diversity visa lottery as well as green cards for parents and siblings of U.S. citizens.
Trump’s words are bigger news still to the lawyers who help U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and employers that sponsor legal immigrants. Members of the legal community are increasingly frustrated by delays, obstructionist tactics, and issues so severe that the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA) has called it a “crisis” and an “invisible wall.”
When Congress created U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), it charged it with providing public service. This is as much to benefit the U.S. as the lawful immigrants. USCIS is expected to process applications for employment-based green cards (to fill jobs where no Americans are available), naturalized U.S. citizenship (to encourage green card holders to become fully engaged members of U.S. society), family-based green cards (so that U.S. citizens can sponsor a spouse or adopt from overseas, for example), and humanitarian protection (per obligations under international law and basic morality). It is not an enforcement agency; service is the core of its mandate.
Despite USCIS having received fewer applications in the past year than in years prior, however, it currently reports a backlog of 2.3 million delayed cases.
Ask any immigration lawyer: processing times at USCIS were never quick. Waiting months for any action (even if it was just to say that the agency lost your check) has long been the norm. Now, however, applicants must tack additional months on to the time they wait in limbo before so much as attending a personal interview with a government official. And that’s before they are finally approved to enter or remain in the U.S., so as to start work or reunite with family.
The frustration isn’t solely about long waits. It’s about the way USCIS drags its feet and puts up roadblocks when handling clean, straightforward cases. The agency schedules interviews in cases it never would have before and issues more Requests for Evidence (RFEs) than ever, asking for documents to prove matters that aren’t always relevant or legally required. Some lawyers report manifestly unjust case denials.
These issues are just one part of how the U.S. government now routinely acts to limit legal immigration. It has instituted a multitude of other procedural and policy changes, many of them too complex to explain here, but all with the same result: making it more difficult to immigrate to the United States.
Thus Trump’s statement is not only eyebrow-raising, it raises obvious questions: Who, if anyone, will have a right to immigrate that didn’t before? How will an agency that currently seems focused on throwing wrenches into the gears actually handle an increased workload? Or is there actually a bigger policy change in the air?