Immigration suspension: All hat and no cattle?

Immigration suspension: All hat and no cattle?
© Getty Images

In a late-night tweet on April 20, President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE said he would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend immigration to the United States, saying he was taking this action “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens… .” 

This drastic policy shift aimed at immigrants is not supported by the substantial body of empirical research that maintains immigration can have a positive impact on U.S. workers. Ryan Edwards and Mao-Mei Liu published a research study in 2018 that examined trends in employment rates of native U.S. workers compared to trends in foreign-born shares of the local labor force between 2005 and 2016. They found that “employment rates for native workers actually rose by a small amount when more immigrants arrived.” Economist Madeline Zavodny’s research drawn from labor force data spanning 2005 to 2013 concluded that immigration did not increase unemployment or reduce labor force participation of native-born workers. “Instead, having more immigrants reduces the unemployment rate and raises the labor force participation rate of U.S. natives within the same sex and education group,” she reported.

When the president signed the proclamation on April 22, it read much differently than his earlier statements. The suspension is much narrower than early reports suggested. It is in force for 60 days with the proviso that it may be continued if warranted. The proclamation exempts several significant categories of immigrants from the suspension, most notably the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, health care professionals, and investors in U.S. businesses. The proclamation also excludes immigrants who are in the United States adjusting their status from a temporary one to lawful permanent residence. 


The proclamation left the door open for agricultural guest worker programs and other temporary employment-based migrants. In recent years, over 1 million visas were issued annually to foreign nationals coming to work temporarily in the United States, well over half of whom are not subject to labor market tests to ensure that U.S. workers are not adversely affected. 

It looks like what we in my adopted state of Texas call “all hat and no cattle” — much bravado with little substance to support it. Before dismissing the ban as just a political stunt — that is, to throw a piece of red meat to the xenophobic among Trump’s base — it warrants closer study and analysis of the underlying data.

Foremost, the proclamation does directly impact U.S. citizens who have parents, adult children  and siblings waiting abroad for visas and U.S. lawful permanent residents who have spouses and children waiting abroad for visas. Turning to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, I analyzed immigrant admissions abroad from these categories, and found that about 80 percent of immigrants arriving in these categories from fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2018 would have been excluded if the suspension had been in place during those years. U.S. citizens and lawful resident families who have family members with approved pending petitions indeed could be hard hit by the proclamation.

Employers who petitioned to hire foreign nationals who are outstanding in their fields, professionals with advanced degrees or bachelor degrees, or skilled workers in short supply — except for physicians, medical professionals and other health care workers — also are affected if they were bringing these workers from abroad. When I analyzed immigrant admissions for these categories from FY 2009 through FY 2018, however, only about 10 percent had come from abroad. The overwhelming number of employment-based immigrants would have been exempted from the suspension because they were already in the United States. Employers come out well because the temporary workers’ pathways to lawful permanent residence appear to remain intact.

Even before this proclamation, the State Department’s consular offices virtually shut down their processing of immigration visas as a nonessential function on March 20. The number of visas issued in March 2020 were down 35 percent from February, and down 35 percent from March 2019. The proclamation seems to stamp a policy imprimatur on a managerial decision.


Using FY2018 immigrant admissions for the suspended categories as a benchmark, the proclamation will put about 58,000 people with approved pending petitions in immigration purgatory for at least 60 days. Most of these people are family members of U.S. workers. If extended, the suspension could place hundreds of thousands of family members of U.S. workers in limbo.

Trump’s commitment to American workers is belied by his lack of support for existing programs that would improve their situation, e.g., opposing increases to the federal minimum wage and a stronger unemployment insurance system. His budget proposals have pushed drastic cuts to the enforcement arms of the Department of Labor that protect the wages, hours, health and safety of U.S. workers. Last summer, the Economic Policy Institute published an analysis by Daniel Costa that found “spending on immigration enforcement in 2018 was an astonishing 11 times greater than spending to enforce labor standards — despite the mandate labor agencies have to protect 146 million workers employed at 10 million workplaces.” 

It’s a hat, all right. Not “all hat and no cattle,” but rather, a hat trick. And the trick is being played on those who think the proclamation would be good for U.S. workers.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin, and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.