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13.12.2017 | Von:
Casey Tran

Migration Policy Changes under the Obama Administration and in the First Year under the New U.S. President Donald Trump

Immigration is a contested issue in the United States. Since 9/11 it has been increasingly linked to discussions on national security. This tendency can be observed under former President Barack Obama as well as under his successor in office, Donald Trump, who has taken a restrictive stance on immigration since his inauguration in January 2017.

Junge Migrantinnen tragen zum 1. Mai ein Banner der Aktion "Ein Tag ohne Migranten", New York am 01.05.2017.Jung migrants on 1rst of Mai with a banner for "A Day without Migrants" (© picture-alliance, ZUMA Press)

Overview of Immigration in the United States

The United States (U.S.) has the largest immigrant population in the world [1] and continues to maintain its status as a "nation of immigrants". In 2015, the U.S. had an estimated population of more than 43.3 million that was foreign born.[2] 'Foreign born' refers to any individual who is not a U.S. citizen at birth – this includes naturalized citizens, permanent residents, temporary migrants, humanitarian migrants as well as unauthorized migrants.[3] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is projected that almost one in five persons among the U.S. population will be foreign born by 2060.[4] The Department of Homeland Security reported that 1,051,031 individuals received lawful permanent resident status in 2015.[5] Lawful permanent residency can be obtained through two pathways: either as a new arrival or status adjustment if a person is already present in the U.S. Figure 1 illustrates the trend of permanent residency granted in the U.S. over the past decade.

Figure 1: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USAFigure 1: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA (PDF-Icon Diagram for Download) (© bpb)
Moreover, persons granted lawful permanent residency that year came mainly from Asia (40 percent), North America [6] (35 percent) and Africa (10 percent). The top country of birth was Mexico followed by China, India, the Philippines and Cuba respectively, representing the top five countries of birth for persons granted lawful permanent residency (see figure 2).[7]

California was also the top state of residence of persons (209,568) who were granted lawful permanent residency that year.[8] Among the different classes under which lawful permanent residency is granted, family reunification was the largest admission channel as represented by both classes: immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (44 percent) and family-sponsored preferences (20 percent). While refugee admissions only constituted 11 percent of lawful permanent residents in 2015, the number is still significant as it was the fourth largest admission category after employment-based preferences (14 percent) (see figure 3).

Figure 2: Top 10 Countries of Birth of Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA in 2015Figure 2: Top 10 Countries of Birth of Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA in 2015 (PDF-Icon Diagram for Download) (© bpb)
Figure 3: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA by Type and Major Class of Admission: Fiscal Year 2015Figure 3: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the USA by Type and Major Class of Admission: Fiscal Year 2015 (PDF-Icon Diagram for Download) (© bpb)

Labor Migration

The U.S. has a long tradition of hiring foreign labor, especially skilled workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, foreign-born workers made up 17 percent (27 million) of the American workforce in 2016.[9] While immigrants do not make up the majority of workers in any U.S industry, certain industries are more reliant upon immigrant workers than others. The Pew Research Center found that industries such as private households; textile, apparel and leather manufacturers; and the agricultural sector had the greatest share of immigrant workers.[10] To attract foreign-skilled labor, the Obama administration created a program to facilitate visa acquisition for people who invest in the United States and for students who pursued science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in post-secondary.[11] In 2016, Obama pushed forward a "start-up" visa, targeted towards immigrant entrepreneurs to promote business growth and job creation in the U.S.[12] Before in 2014, the Obama administration had already broadened the scope of rights of foreign workers holding a visa for temporary employment in the U.S (H1-B visa). Accordingly, they were granted more flexibility to travel back home and were afforded more allowance in changing jobs, applying for work spousal permits, and making it easier for them to obtain a green card. While this is welcome news for some immigrants, critics of the H1-B visa program lament the program is being exploited by employers to hire temporary, cheap foreign labor at the expense of American job prospects and wage levels [13] with most of the awarded visas going to outsourcing firms.[14]

In April 2017, President Obama’s successor in office, Donald Trump, signed the Executive Order "Buy American and Hire American"[15] to address the criticism of the H1-B visa. This order would reform the H1-B visa’s existing lottery system [16] to one that prioritized giving out visas to high-skilled, high-wage labor [17] as President Trump had campaigned heavily to restore American jobs eliminated due to global outsourcing. His Executive Order also prioritized the awarding of federal contracts to American businesses.[18] On August 2nd, Trump announced his support for the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act or RAISE Act, a bill proposed by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that would decrease legal immigration by half in ten years (through the limitation of family reunification) and establish a merit-based immigration system that favored high-skilled immigrants, similar to systems in Australia and Canada.[19] While attracting high-skilled labor is a priority area, certain industries such as the agricultural sector rely on low-skilled labor heavily. There was a jump of 36 percent for approved temporary "guest worker" applications (under the H-2A visa) in 2017 from 2016, indicating farmers’ greater reliance on these workers’ labor to perform agricultural work.[20] In the U.S. the percentage of farm workers who are unauthorized is estimated to be 70% by observers while 48% is reported by the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.[21]

Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Securitization of Immigration

In the post-9/11 era, the unauthorized movement of people across international borders has increasingly been conceptualized as a risk for national security. Border security and border management have gained policymakers’ major attention and the public has become ever less accepting of undocumented immigration. In 2015, there was reported to be an estimated total of eleven million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.[22] Over the last decade, the U.S has struggled to pass a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) package which not only enhances border security, but also offers ways for unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status, and creates a framework for the import of foreign labor to better meet the country’s existing and future labor market needs.[23] Despite marrying these objectives, the road to CIR has not been straightforward given the last major piece of CIR legislation was successfully passed over three decades ago, with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. [24] Several immigration laws passed since the IRCA have focused mainly on the criminalization of immigrants including the Immigration Act of 1990, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and U.S Patriot Act of 2001. [25] Even with Barack Obama securing a second term as President of the United States in November 2012, two CIR attempts had failed. One attempt was the bi-partisan effort to pass immigration reform bill S.744, also known as the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act".

This bill was written by the "Gang of Eight", group made up of four Democrat and four Republican Senate members. The bill would allow unauthorized immigrants who have arrived before 2012 and meet certain conditions (i.e. no felony committed, holding a job, paying taxes back) to remain in the country without the fear of deportation and apply for a green card after ten years. After that, they would need to wait for three years before being able to apply for citizenship.[26] Youth under the ‘DREAM Act’ (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) or ‘DREAMers’ would have a faster track towards the green card and citizenship, as they would only need to wait five years to apply for the green card and citizenship shortly afterwards. Agricultural workers would also be eligible after five years but would not be eligible immediately for citizenship.[27] The bill ended up being passed by the Senate in June 2013 but failed to reach the House for a vote, quashing hopes of immigration reform.[28]


Phillip Connor and Gustavo López, “5 facts about the U.S. rank in worldwide migration,” Pew Research Center, last modified May 18, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/05/18/5-facts-about-the-u-s-rank-in-worldwide-migration/
Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, "Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States," Migration Policy Institute, last modified March 8, 2017, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states
U.S. Census Bureau, "Foreign Born," last modified July 6, 2016, https://www.census.gov/topics/population/foreign-born/about.html#par_textimage
Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman, "Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060, Current Population Reports" (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2015), 1.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 1. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2015," last modified December 15, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table1
"North America includes Canada, Greenland, Mexico, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, United States, and the countries within the regions of the Caribbean and Central America" (2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, p. 2).
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 10. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status By Broad Class Of Admission And Region And Country Of Birth: Fiscal Year 2015," last modified June 1, 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table10
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 4. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status By State Or Territory Of Residence: Fiscal Years 2013 To 2015," last modified December 15, 2016, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2015/table4
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Foreign-born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics — 2016," last modified May 18, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/forbrn.pdf
Drew Desilver, “Immigrants don’t make up a majority of workers in any U.S. industry,” Pew Research Center, last modified March 16, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/16/immigrants-dont-make-up-a-majority-of-workers-in-any-u-s-industry/
Max Ehrenfreund, "Your complete guide to Obama’s immigration executive action," The Washington Post, last modified November 20, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/19/your-complete-guide-to-obamas-immigration-order/?utm_term=.df863754ee90
Steven Overly, "Obama administration proposes new visa rule for immigrant entrepreneurs," The Washington Post, last modified August 26, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/08/26/obama-administration-proposes-new-visa-rule-for-immigrant-entrepreneurs/?utm_term=.ba6d3bc7a3b8
Nicole Torres, "The H-1B Visa Debate, Explained," Harvard Business Review, last modified May 4, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/05/the-h-1b-visa-debate-explained
David Smith, "Donald Trump to overhaul H-1B visa program that admits foreign workers," The Guardian, April 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/17/donald-trump-temporary-worker-h1b-visa-executive-order
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American," last modified April 18, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/18/presidential-executive-order-buy-american-and-hire-american
A lottery system indicates that visas are awarded through a random selection process.
Glenn Thrush, Nick Wingfield and Vindu Goel, "Trump Signs Order That Could Lead to Curbs on Foreign Workers," The New York Times, last modified April 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/us/politics/executive-order-hire-buy-american-h1b-visa-trump.html
Ayesha Rascoe and Mica Rosenberg, "Trump and senators seek to slash legal immigration," Reuters, last modified August 2, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-idUSKBN1AI1ZU
Dan Charles, "Government Confirms A Surge In Foreign Guest Workers On U.S. Farms," NPR, last modified May 18, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/05/18/528948143/government-confirms-a-surge-in-foreign-guest-workers-on-u-s-farms
Ron Strolic and Thea Rittenhouse, A Research and Outreach Agenda for Agricultural Workers in California, University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources; UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, last modified November 2013, http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/publications/food-and-society/researchagendaforfarmworkers-2013.pdf
Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel and D’vera Cohn, "5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S.," Pew Research Center, last modified April 27, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/27/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/
Migration Policy Institute, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform," n.d., http://www.migrationpolicy.org/topics/comprehensive-immigration-reform
Migration Policy Institute, "Timeline: Major U.S. Immigration Laws, 1790 – Present," last modified March 2013, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/timeline-1790
"Key provisions in 'Gang of Eight' Senate proposal," The Washington Post, last modified April 15, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/senators-immigration-legislation-provisions/
Dylan Matthews, "The Senate immigration bill: Here’s what you need to know," The Washington Post, last modified April 16, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/04/16/the-senate-immigration-bill-heres-what-you-need-to-know/?utm_term=.f67395749102
Tom McCarthy, "The evolution of immigration reform under Obama – a timeline," The Guardian, last modified November 20, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/20/immigration-reform-under-obama-timeline
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