In the two years and 308 days that Donald Trump has been president, he has constructed zero miles of wall along the southern border of the United States. He has, to be fair, replaced or reinforced 76 miles of existing fence and signed it with a sharpie. A private group has also built a barrier less than a mile long with some help from Steve Bannon and money raised on GoFundMe. But along the 2,000 miles from Texas to California, there is no blockade of unscalable steel slats in heat-retaining matte black, no electrified spikes, no moat and no crocodiles. The animating force of Trump’s entire presidency—the idea that radiated a warning of dangerous bigotry to his opponents and a promise of unapologetic nativism to his supporters—will never be built in the way he imagined.
And it doesn’t matter. In the two years and 308 days that Donald Trump has been president, his administration has constructed far more effective barriers to immigration. No new laws have actually been passed. This transformation has mostly come about through subtle administrative shifts—a phrase that vanishes from an internal manual, a form that gets longer, an unannounced revision to a website, a memo, a footnote in a memo. Among immigration lawyers, the cumulative effect of these procedural changes is known as the invisible wall.
In the two years after Trump took office, denials for H1Bs, the most common form of visa for skilled workers, more than doubled. In the same period, wait times for citizenship also doubled, while average processing times for all kinds of visas jumped by 46 percent, even as the quantity of applications went down. In 2018, the United States added just 200,000 immigrants to the population, a startling 70 percent less than the year before.
Before Trump was elected, there was virtually no support within either party for policies that make it harder for foreigners to come here legally. For decades, the Republican consensus has favored tough border security along with high levels of legal immigration. The party’s small restrictionist wing protested from the margins, but it was no match for a pro-immigration coalition encompassing business interests, unions and minority groups. In 2013, then-Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions introduced an amendment that would have lowered the number of people who qualified for green cards and work visas. It got a single vote in committee—his own. As a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security observed, “If you told me these guys would be able to change the way the U.S. does immigration in two years, I would have laughed.”
Senior adviser Stephen Miller is usually regarded as the White House’s immigration mastermind, but his maneuvering is only a sliver of the story. The most fine-grained and consequential changes would never have been possible without a group of like-minded figures stationed in relevant parts of the government—particularly the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, the agency within DHS that administers visas. Early in Trump’s presidency, said the former DHS official, there was a “strategic sprinkling” of people who “shared a common vision and were ready to outwork everybody.” They included Gene Hamilton, Miller’s “terrible sword at DHS” (his actual title was senior counselor to the secretary), and Francis Cissna, the soft-spoken former head of USCIS whom colleagues describe as “an encyclopaedia of immigration law” and “a total immigration nerd.” “If you said to him, what’s on page 468, second paragraph” of the Immigration and Nationality Act, another former DHS official marveled, “he would quote it to you.” [Continue reading…]