Opinion

Is President Trump about to target legal immigrants?

It sure sounds like it...

The executive orders just keep coming fast and furious from the shoot-from-the-hip Trump administration.

In this case, let's focus on two drafts of executive orders, which The Washington Post and other outlets got a look at. (The fact that these are drafts means they could be changed before President Trump signs them — or never signed at all.) Worryingly, these two new draft orders are aimed at sizably reducing the population of immigrants — both documented and undocumented — already here in America.

The first order, titled "Protecting Taxpayer Resources by Ensuring Our Immigration Laws Promote Accountability and Responsibility,” aims to deny admission to noncitizens "likely to become a public charge" — a "public charge" being someone who depends primarily on government aid programs for their livelihood. It also looks to develop standards for determining which noncitizen could become public charges "within five years of entry," and deport them.

But as the Post notes, the U.S. already has laws on the books that give authority to federal officials to bar immigrants who may become public charges. We also already have laws that severely restrict access to public assistance programs for immigrants. As a result, research finds such groups actually use less public assistance than native-born citizens who make the same amount of income. Trump's administration is apparently unaware of this fact, given the draft order includes the claim that "households headed by aliens are much more likely than those headed by citizens to use federal ­means-tested public benefits."

Here's another actual fact: Undocumented immigrants (and legal immigrants) pay plenty of sales, property, and income taxes. In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office found that the combined tax revenues of those two groups generally exceed the amount of government spending they use. Other government research suggests undocumented immigrants do consume more government aid than they pay in taxes, but the difference is pretty minimal: $2 billion to $19 billion a year. (For context, $19 billion is roughly 0.5 percent of annual federal spending and 0.1 percent of the economy.)

So what would this draft order even accomplish? We already have laws on the books doing much of what this order supposedly wants to do, and these laws are clearly achieving results. Without Congress changing the laws, there might not be much more blood an executive order can squeeze out of this particular stone.

The second executive order, however, might be another matter.

Entitled "Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs," it aims to overhaul the country's work visa programs. Those programs, the order says, should be administered in a way that "prioritizes the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold.”

There are several programs that allow foreign workers and students to come to America — the L-1, E-2, and B-1 visas, for example — but the big target here seems to be the H-1B visa. Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, has said to expect changes to the program, which is used to grant admittance to high-skill workers who earn higher salaries, and is only supposed to fill jobs that American companies can't find domestic workers to do. Big tech firms like Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon are all big fans of the H-1B. Many of their best and brightest are legal immigrants here on H-1B visas.

Critics complain that the H-1B system gets abused by firms looking to undercut American wages and bring in cheaper labor from abroad. And there's some truth to that. While most of the major Silicon Valley firms pay their workers well (their service labor contractors are another matter), recently the majority of H-1B visas issued each year have been sucked up by another group of firms who specialize in staffing corporate IT departments. They pay their workers considerably less, and they've been involved in a few infamous offshoring incidents; like when Disney laid off a bunch of tech workers in 2015, and replaced them all with immigrants, many of whom were on H-1B visas.

Like a lot of Trump's other executive orders, this looks like a talking point from a political campaign stump speech that failed to get fully translated into implementable policy details. The executive branch can't unilaterally rewrite the law, so most of its freedom lies in discretionary enforcement and other fiddling around the edges. But the order does contain a few specifics.

For one thing, it sounds like it would significantly step up government inspections of workplaces that use these visas — aiming to reach all of them within two years. The order also calls for a report within 90 days on how to make allocation of the visas more "efficient." More ominously, and what gives the draft order a real feel of nativist paranoia, the Post reports that the order instructs Homeland Security to report twice a year "on the total number of foreign-born people — not just nonimmigrant visa holders — who are authorized to work in the United States." (Emphasis mine.)

Finally, the draft order does have a specific number: It aims to cap the total amount of H-1B, L-1, E-2, and B-1 visas issued each year at 85,000. That would be a big change: In 2015, the H-1B visas alone totaled 172,000.

Silicon Valley is already pretty unhappy with the new administration. This kind of draconian reduction could set off a full-blown political war between the tech industry and the Trump White House.

But again, these are draft orders, so details are sketchy, and it's not clear if Trump will even go through with them. It's also possible that, in carrying out the second order, the visa system could be reshuffled to prioritize the higher-paying Silicon Valley firms again. And maybe both sides could walk away happy.

That bit about the Homeland Security reports is still creepy, though.

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