Migrating legally to the United States is not easy. I know this from personal experience: I have gone through the process several times over the past 10 years, as an international student, a worker on temporary employment visas and eventually a resident by marriage.
The legal journey to the U.S. is marked by hundreds of dollars worth of fees, endless paperwork and nerve-wracking interviews where your fate will be determined by the immigration agent sitting across from you, who you hope is in a good mood that day.
To be frank, the process would make any person borderline paranoid. Because even the smallest mistakes, such as overstaying your visa for a single day, can cost you dearly.
This is why when my student visa expired weeks before my wedding, I had to leave the country, re-enter as a tourist, get married and wait overseas until the embassy confirmed my new employment-based visa had been approved. Contrary to popular belief, immigrants do not become automatically U.S. citizens when they marry an American.
Given my experience, I was encouraged when President Trump recently said he will sign an executive order that would create an easier path for first-generation immigrants like me who, not having immediate family to sponsor them, have painstakingly followed the demands of the current system to build a life in the U.S.
Yet it’s hard to take the president at his word when his track record shows he has tried to make it harder, not easier, to migrate to the U.S.
A policy analysis from the Migration Policy Institute shows that, in his first two years in office, Trump increased restrictions and scrutiny for work visas and permanent residency applications. He also proposed getting rid of a program that allows international students to get professional experience after graduation. The program, known as Optional Practical Training, was one of the key reasons why I was able to stay in the U.S. long term.
These policies reflect the Trump administration’s agenda to redefine America’s history as a nation of immigrants.
In 2018, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changed its mission statement so it no longer says its job is to secure “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.” Its mission now is to adjudicate requests “while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”
Thanks to Congress and quick-thinking federal judges, Trump has been refrained from enacting sweeping restrictions on immigration. But the Covid-19 pandemic has finally provided the president the justification needed to put a virtual stop to immigration.
In April, Trump put a 60-day moratorium on the issuing of new permanent residency cards and visas for skilled workers. He later extended the moratorium until the end of 2020, arguing it would “protect unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents.”
Were it not for public pressure and a lawsuit by Harvard and MIT, the Trump administration also would have put thousands of international students at risk of deportation if their universities did not hold residential classes in the fall.
In the first place, international students need special permission to work while enrolled in school. Even when they get permission, it’s only for part-time positions, which are often on campus.
Immigrants who come on work visas — about 265,000 a year, according to State Department statistics — can only be employed at the company that hired them, for the specific job they were hired to do. It can take years before they are eligible for permanent residency and can transfer elsewhere.
Ironically, the president has long complained the current immigration system, which favors family ties, drives away talented immigrants who would benefit the U.S.
In a 2019 speech outlining his immigration plan, he regretted that “exceptional” international students and entrepreneurial immigrants who start successful businesses overseas leave because they have no relatives to sponsor them in the U.S.
Yet Trump is the one who is driving these immigrants away. And his administration’s anti-immigration agenda is hurting not only aspiring immigrants but also U.S. citizens.
In 2018, international students — who do not qualify for federal aid but largely depend on family resources to pay for their education — contributed $44.7 billion to the economy, according to a report by the Institute of International Education.
A 2017 study from the National Foundation for American Policy also revealed immigrants founded more than half of startups that were valued at $1 billion or more at the time.
In fact, simply by applying for any visa service, immigrants create jobs. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is primarily funded by application fees. Because of Trump’s moratorium on visas, the agency now faces a $1.2 billion funding gap, putting 13,400 employees at risk of furlough.
President Trump’s claim that he is protecting American jobs by halting immigration flies in the face of the facts. Immigrants often give more than they take. If he cares about American jobs, he should help us stay and contribute to the economy.
Jonny Williams was born in Guatemala and grew up in Honduras. He is a freelance writer and editor based out of Rhode Island and is finishing his master’s in journalism at Georgetown University.