Trump executive order to suspend immigration would reduce green cards by nearly one-third if extended for a full year

President Trump’s April 22 executive order to “suspend immigration” has the potential to reduce the number of migrants who can obtain green cards, i.e., become lawful permanent residents (LPRs), by hundreds of thousands if it remains in place for a substantial period of time beyond its initial 60-day duration.

Table 1 lists the categories of green cards that are affected by Trump’s executive order, along with the number of green cards that were issued in 2019 in each of those categories to applicants who were “new arrivals,” meaning they applied for their green cards from abroad. (The executive order does not suspend green cards for applicants who already reside in the United States.)

As Table 1 shows, there were one million total green cards issued during all of 2019, and 316,000 green cards issued under the categories suspended by Trump’s new executive order. The executive order is initially valid for 60 days (two months); a 60-day suspension of these categories would result in an estimated reduction of 52,600 green cards, or a reduction of 5.1% of all green cards relative to the total number issued in 2019.

However, it is impossible to know whether the executive order will remain in place for just two months, multiple years, or somewhere in between. Each additional 60 days would reduce the number by an additional 52,600, or an additional 5.1% of the annual green card total. If the executive order remains in force for one full year, it would result in a reduction of 316,000 green cards, or 31%, nearly one-third, of the one million green cards issued in 2019.

Table 1

Green cards would fall by 31% under Trump’s executive order: Number of people applying from abroad who became U.S. lawful permanent residents in 2019 in the categories suspended by Trump’s April 2020 executive order

Immigrant class of admission, new arrivals only Number in 2019
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens
Parents 66,782
Family-sponsored preferences
First: Unmarried sons/daughters of U.S. citizens and their children 20,866
Second: Spouses, children, and unmarried sons/daughters of alien residents; children of spouses of alien residents 85,089
Third: Married sons/daughters of U.S. citizens and their spouses and children 22,874
Fourth: Brothers/sisters of U.S. citizens (at least 21 years of age) and their spouses and children 56,083
Employment-based preferences
First: Priority workers, and their spouses and children 2,238
Second: Professionals with advanced degrees or aliens of exceptional ability, and their spouses and children 3,432
Third: Skilled workers, professionals, and unskilled workers, and their spouses and children 13,522
Fourth: Certain special immigrants, and their spouses and children 2,080
Diversity Immigrant Visa program 42,437
Children born abroad to alien residents 59
Other 356
Total in suspended categories 315,818
Total green cards issued, all categories 1,030,990
Suspended categories as a percentage of total green cards 31%

Notes: New arrivals represents applicants for lawful permanent resident status who are residing outside of the United States, usually in the country of origin. “Other” category primarily consists of those admitted under special legislation.

Source: Author’s analysis of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Legal Immigration and Adjustment of Status Report Fiscal Year 2019, Quarter 4, Table 1B.

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The irony about Trump issuing the executive order now is that nearly all forms of temporary and permanent immigration to the United States have already been stopped or suspended as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, there are virtually no permanent or temporary visas being processed abroad in U.S. consulates, except for temporary H-2A visas for migrant farmworkers, and there are travel restrictions in place with numerous countries. Refugee applications are not currently being processed. And at U.S. land border crossings, nonessential travel is restricted and asylum seekers are not being allowed to enter the United States, a practice the United Nations has suggested is inconsistent with international law. That’s why in practical terms the executive order may end up being only a symbolic gesture—i.e., if it only lasts 60 days and is not renewed. But, of course, if it is extended longer than 60 days, it could have a major impact on the U.S. immigration system.

Scapegoating immigrants has long been a tactic used by the Trump administration as a way to distract from the administration’s many failings. The new executive order is simply one more example. While President Trump justifies the executive order on the basis of protecting the U.S. labor market, it is patently obvious that instead, it’s a convenient way to take attention away from the administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic and to blame immigrants for all of society’s ills.

The reality about immigrants, of course, is that they are a vital part of the U.S. labor force, and even more so now: Immigrants make up 17% of the U.S. labor force and are overrepresented in industries that are critical to keeping America fed and functioning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The executive order is also about Trump taking advantage of a crisis to implement bigger and longer-term reductions in immigration, especially with respect to immigration based on family ties and through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program for migrants from underrepresented countries, most of whom hail from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—reductions that Congress so far has not been willing to enact, but which have always been a major goal of the Trump administration.

In addition, Trump’s executive order is a perfect manifestation of, and is consistent with, the many other anti-immigrant but also extreme corporatist policies of the Trump administration. In other words, it’s a policy that will prohibit only those migrants who will have labor rights and a path to citizenship from coming to the United States. The administration has already reduced the number of refugees who are granted LPR status and can become citizens to historic lows, and now the executive order will put in place emergency measures to reduce the number of green cards issued in the family and immigrant worker categories.

The only employment-based green card category that was spared by the executive order is the EB-5 immigrant investor program—a scandal-ridden cash-for-visas scheme that allows wealthy applicants to receive green cards if they make financial investments in the United States. In recent years there have been bipartisan calls to reform the program while companies affiliated with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner have profited from it.

At the same time, the issuance of nonimmigrant, temporary work visas, which restrict the rights of migrant workers and make them particularly vulnerable in the workplace, has not been suspended or restricted. That should surprise no one considering Trump’s companies hire hundreds of guestworkers every year—often preferring them to local U.S. workers and finding ways to avoid hiring U.S. workers—and Trump has even used discretionary legal authority to increase the number of temporary work visas during every year of his administration.

Temporary work visa programs have long been a top immigration policy priority for corporate America. This was reflected in recent New York Times reporting about the executive order, which detailed that Trump declined to suspend temporary work visas because of “intense pressure from business groups,” including technology and agribusiness firms, who reportedly “exploded in anger” at the notion that their access to temporary work visas might be suspended or restricted.

It is important to remember that the 1.6 million migrant workers employed with temporary work visas in the United States—who account for 1% of the labor force—face many challenges. Many are paid low wages relative to similarly situated U.S. workers. They cannot switch jobs or employers because of the terms of their visa status and, as a result, they are often subjected to workplace abuse, wage theft, exploitation, and even human trafficking. This has been documented through many reports from the media and advocacy organizations, as well as government audits. And since temporary work visa programs don’t offer migrant workers a direct path to a green card and citizenship, they have to depart from the United States after they finish their jobs. They are, in many respects, cheap and disposable labor for U.S. employers.

While taking emergency measures to reduce permanent, green card immigration, the Trump administration’s policies will nevertheless continue to prioritize and expedite the admission of migrants if they’re coming to work for U.S. employers with temporary work visas—where many will be indentured and underpaid and will never have a path to permanent residence or citizenship.