U.S. Immigration Reforms May Hit a Wall in Congress

6 MINS READJan 10, 2018 | 23:20 GMT
An asylum seeker waits in a security line for his immigration hearing in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 11, 2017.

An asylum seeker waits in a security line for his immigration hearing in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 11, 2017. Immigration reform is shaping up to be one of the main domestic priorities for the Trump administration in 2018.

  • In 2018, the Trump administration will try to pass immigration reforms designed to curb both illegal and legal immigration.
  • Proposed reforms include the elimination of the diversity visa lottery, funding for heavier border security measures, and prioritizing professional merit rather than family ties when admitting immigrants.
  • With only a slim Republican majority in the Senate and facing resistance from the private sector, the White House is unlikely to get congressional approval for much of its agenda and will have to make compromises. 

One of U.S. President Donald Trump's main promises on the 2016 campaign trail was to limit both illegal and legal migration. Nearly a year into his tenure, immigration reform is indeed shaping up to be a domestic priority for the Trump administration. The White House presented Congress an extensive list of reform demands in October 2017, which have been whittled down to form the basis of negotiations in the legislature. But as with many of Trump's other bold campaign promises, overhauling the U.S. immigration system will be easier said than done.

The Long Journey to Today

At its core, Trump's administration is pushing for a more selective, restrictive system for admitting migrants to the country, based on the argument that such a system would increase national security and reduce competition for U.S. workers. In working to implement these changes, the administration is attempting to reverse contemporary U.S. immigration trends driven over the course of several decades by a combination of legislation, post-war economic prosperity and population growth in other countries.

The two laws that shape the vast majority of current U.S. immigration policy are the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the Immigration Act of 1990. The 1965 law did away with immigration quotas based on country of origin (which were determined discriminatory), made it easier for foreigners in the United States to bring family members across the border and established the process of employment-based immigration, in which companies sponsor migrants they intend to employ. The 1990 legislation further expanded the number of categories for legal U.S. immigration and set yearly quotas for all immigrant visas.

In the 25 years after the Immigration and Nationality Act became law, the share of U.S. immigrants from East Asia, South Asia and Latin America rose dramatically. The spike derived from population growth and economic limitations in those regions and, at the same time, from the increasing ease of legally migrating to the United States, which was in the midst of a post-war economic boom. The United States' foreign-born population rose by nearly 400 percent between 1960 and 2010; most legal immigrants used the family-based immigration provisions implemented in 1965 to cross the border.

As more immigrants have joined American society over the past several decades, calls to slow immigration for the benefit of domestic workers have grown steadily louder. Labor unions lobbied to curb overall employment-based immigration during legislative deliberations in 1990. And since then, Democratic and Republican legislators alike have periodically introduced bills to crack down on visa fraud or to curb immigration. These attempts generally failed to gain traction in the 1990s and 2000s, either because both parties were focused on other issues or because the Senate and the House of Representatives could not reconcile the differences in their perspectives.

Percentage of U.S. Population That Is Foreign-Born

From Campaign Promise to Political Reality

The difference now is that the president has made immigration reform a priority, and his administration intends to use every possible pathway, from executive order to congressional approval, to pursue it. So far, the executive branch has taken advantage of what it can legally accomplish without Congress; for example, immigration authorities have increased their domestic enforcement activity, and last year they began evaluating visa petitions according to stricter criteria. But because any changes that the administration implements by order could fall by the wayside once Trump leaves office, the White House is aiming to get as many proposed reforms as possible codified into law.

Among the demands on the administration's list is a complete overhaul of the legal immigration process, including a shift away from prioritizing family-based immigration and toward favoring immigrants with certain professional merits. The president also called for the elimination of several types of visas — among them, the "diversity visa" lottery, which grants recipients permanent residency. On the subject of illegal immigration, the list included calls to boost funding for border security and enforcement and proposals for more controversial items, such as a border wall.

Since October, Republican senators have been in the process of informally negotiating with Democrats over various elements of immigration reform. The initial talks disregarded some of the more contentious demands and homed in on three issues: eliminating the visa lottery, ending family-based immigration categories and enhancing border security. In exchange for these measures, Republican lawmakers told Democrats they would extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows around 700,000 people brought illegally as children to work and remain in the United States.

Easier Said Than Done

Yet even though Republicans control Congress, the Trump administration probably won't get exactly the type of comprehensive immigration reform it wants. The executive branch, after all, must persuade a disparate group of senators and congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle that making wide-ranging changes to both family- and employment-based immigration is necessary. Not all Republicans in the slim Senate majority are committed to lowering immigration numbers. Furthermore, even those Democrats receptive to immigration reduction will be reluctant to grant the current administration a legislative win during an election year (not to mention the fact that extending DACA is the only concession that Republicans are offering, in exchange for several significant policy changes).

The window for Congress to pass immigration reform without fear of losing seats in this year's midterm elections is narrowing. In addition, the current administration lacks the 60 votes it needs in Congress to prevent a filibuster on immigration reform or border security spending, making bipartisan negotiation the only option, even for divisive proposals such as shifting away from family-based immigration. Specific sectors of the economy that rely on skilled and unskilled labor from abroad will further complicate matters. U.S. companies, particularly in the information technology sector, have come to depend on skilled Indian nationals, who — thanks to their country's sheer size and focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education — account for more than half of the nearly 2 million H-1B work visas issued since 2001. Private sector lobbyists will lean hard on lawmakers to resist decisions that would restrict their ability to hire foreign employees.

Considering these factors, the likelihood of any comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws this year is low. Instead, the administration will attempt to compromise with Congress while continuing to look for measures that it can order directly, such as changes to rules covering the scrutiny and adjudication of visas. And if the Trump administration manages a win in Congress, it will be for a far smaller and more compromise-heavy deal than the White House was hoping for.

Still, even a short-term push to formalize specific immigration restrictions into law, if successful, would have demographic and political implications for the United States. The country is losing its ability to keep population growth stable, even with current immigration patterns. A more restrictive immigration system could discourage overall migration to the United States, exacerbating the country's population decline and economic strains in the long run.

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