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Defending Princeton’s 12 percent: The unseen side of the anti-immigration movement

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Twelve percent of students in Princeton’s incoming Class of 2022 are not U.S. citizens, on par with the proportion in recent years. Instead they hail from 77 countries around the world, united by an educational pilgrimage to the United States to become Princetonians. In their four years of college, these students will make some of their strongest lifelong friendships. They will build their professional networks, get their first jobs, fall in love with America, and, perhaps, with an American. They will be as much a part of Princeton as their American peers. But at some point in their four years they will be harshly reminded that no matter how much they love America, America does not love them back. At least not those who presently hold power. 

Immigration has been at the forefront of the nation’s attention since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Progressive America’s awareness of the Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies has been fierce and consistent, igniting protests and Supreme Court cases that attempt to resist and reverse them. While commendable, this focus on immigration has been narrow and reactionary. The stories that have earned the left’s attention, including at Princeton, are the big, bitterly exciting abuses of power, from the original Muslim ban to the revelation of family separation. These actions do have serious consequences, and no energy spent campaigning against the prejudicial, inhumane treatment of would-be immigrants is wasted. But a broader attentiveness to the less sensational changes in immigration policy is needed if America’s immigration system is to endure the Trump presidency with a shred of openness and dignity.


While we have had our attention focused on the southern border, the Trump administration and Republican Party have launched waves of attacks on America’s mainstream legal immigration channels and have foreshadowed more actions to come. Many of these attacks have targeted the H-1B visa program, on which the majority of international students depend to remain in the United States after graduation. Other attacks have sought to slow and shrink the legal immigration system as a whole. These attacks are not in the news headlines, because they aren’t sensational. They’re boring, mundane. But they have dire consequences for much larger numbers of people trying to immigrate lawfully. These assaults on the front door to America will, without resistance, make this country hostile and inaccessible to the German you sit next to in precept, the British girl you have a crush on, and the Nigerian with whom you do your p-sets. 

These anti-immigration changes have not come from Congress. Immigration reform has for years been in immovable object in both parties’ legislative agendas, though not for a lack of trying. In June, the GOP, backed by the President, attempted to push two pieces of legislation through Congress that sought to limit legal immigration. Both were denied, the latter by a 301 to 121 vote. The rejection of these bills offers a false sense of security. They were rejected not because the majority disagreed with their anti-immigration sentiment, but in fact the opposite. They were rejected because a swath of Republicans felt they were not sufficiently harsh, despite the fact that this legislation would have removed many avenues for legal immigration and provided funding for Trump’s coveted border wall. The Congressional majority has no desire for new Americans.

So, at least until midterms, Congress is not the main threat to aspiring Americans. Aware of the limitations of the legislature, since 2016 the Trump-lead anti-immigration cohort has resorted to the tactics more often adopted by the defenders of progress: disrupt and delay. And have no doubt, your foreign friends are equally as threatened by these covert tactics.

Disruption and delay began in April 2017 when President Trump signed the Buy American and Hire American executive order in response to an immigration system that Trump called a “theft of American prosperity.” The order called on federal agencies to propose and implement organizational changes that reflected the anti-immigration message baked into its name. More specifically, it targeted the H-1B visa program on which skilled immigrants, including the University’s international students, depend. This executive order, probably accompanied by a myriad of informal directives, has led to a bureaucratic overhaul that is crippling the U.S. immigration process from the inside and slowing the processing of immigration requests to a dysfunctional level. The consequence? From the third to fourth quarter of 2017, the number of H-1B visa applications denied increased by 41 percent. And over the same period, the number “requests for evidence” issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service increased by over 300 percent, leading to massive delays that cripple the plans of thousands of people trying to work in the United States, and foreshadowing more denials to come.

Congress may not be able to pass legislation, but the delays that anti-immigration proponents have created in the bureaucracy function just as well as a legislative obstacle to immigration. The consequences of these delays are real for students at the University and beyond, and regrettably I can attest to this from my own experience. I was unable to begin a New York-based internship this summer because USCIS took five-and-a-half months to process paperwork for which I was only permitted to apply 90 days in advance. By the time the work authorization arrived, the internship had already finished. No internship usually means no return offer for full-time work post-graduation, which for international students means no immigration security. Without a post-grad job offer, international students cannot stay in the United States on post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) or an eventual H-1B visa. USCIS’s bureaucratic delay tactics create a very real barrier to U.S. employment for many international students, and force students back into the hunt for a job or grad school where the cost of failure is deportation. It can be worse for others beyond our campus: Some lose their full-time job offers after waiting months to begin, and others are forced to seek alternative employment abroad due to the financial strain of being effectively unemployed while they wait. And for many, the delays ultimately lead to a denial of their immigration requests.

Delays aren’t the only tactic employed to shrink employment-based migration. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security issued a mandate to USCIS to drastically increase the administrative and legal obstacles that must be overcome for an H-1B visa to be extended to allow a non-citizen to continue working in the United States beyond the initial two-year term. This change decreases the likelihood of a person’s being able to remain in the United States and remain in their job, not only because they may be denied an extension, but because their employer is less likely to pursue the extension in the face of great hurdles. There has also been talk of canceling H-1B visa extensions for people with pending green card applications who have been on an H-1B visa for six years. Canceling the extension while a green card is still pending leaves a person with no immigration security at all. This change would make employment a less viable pathway to permanent residency.


The tragic irony of the attack on employment-based migration is that it runs counter to their alleged goal of “merit-based” immigration. Trump detests immigration channels that give ordinary people a way of becoming American. He has repeatedly spoken of abolishing the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, which awards green cards to citizens of countries with lower immigration flows to the United States based on a lottery draw. In February he tweeted “time to end the visa lottery,” and he has blamed the lottery (and indirectly Chuck Schumer) for terrorism. He has also attacked family — or “chain” — migration, and the number of family visas granted dropped by more than 25 percent in 2017. 

The President is correct that neither a lottery-based system nor privileging families will maximize the “merit” of America’s immigration system. But if merit were really the concern, Trump would not target the H-1B visa program, which necessitates skill and only admits those who are sponsored by a U.S. company after a competitive hiring process. It is a myth that companies hire foreigners on H-1B visas to avoid paying higher wages to U.S. citizens: Regulation necessitates that H-1B visa holders be paid a higher wage than an American in the same position, and that is after the company has paid over $6,000 in legal fees for visa sponsorship. Intelligent reforms that prevent fraudulent hiring are welcomed, but they should not act as barriers against law-abiding applicants who do possess the required “merit.” Even the most conservative merit-based immigration system should not close the immigration channels for international students at America’s top universities.

Attacking employment-based immigration makes no sense for a government that favors merit-based immigration, nor does it make any sense economically. The United States has a lower-than-normal 3.9 percent unemployment rate, and U.S. businesses are desperate for qualified workers to fill posts and give the country the human capital needed for continued economic growth. Even in high-unemployment environments, demand for skilled workers remains tight. There is no epidemic of Americans being robbed of employment by skilled foreign workers. And even if there were, barring the entry of foreign workers into the U.S. labor market is the equivalent of a quota on foreign imports to U.S. markets. It lowers competition and prevents U.S. companies from having access to the full market of talent, leading to lower global output and lower total market efficiency. Americans, particularly ambitious Princetonians with their eyes on working abroad, ought to hope that other nations don’t retaliate in the labor market in the way that Trump’s trade policies are forcing them to retaliate in export markets.

It is no doubt easy for American readers to feel disconnected from the issues I’m raising. But if you’re wondering why you should care about seemingly boring attacks on open immigration, reflect on your ancestry. On a recent recreational trip to Ellis Island, I read a fact that made me feel closer to my American peers: In 1910, 75 percent of Americans in major East Coast cities were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Even today, 27 percent of Americans are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Unless you trace your family lineage to a Native American tribe, collection of indentured servants, or abducted African community, your “Americanness” is likely the product of an open legal immigration system.

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If the thought of people who are not yet American immigrating lawfully to the United States causes you a slight sense of anxiety, you may need to reflect on the arbitrariness of nationality and challenge your budding xenophobia. Many Americans are only American because at some point the Americans before them decided to let their ancestor, born overseas, become American. President Trump ought to appreciate this: He himself is the child of immigrants. His mother turned 18 during her migration to America from Scotland, and his father was the child of German immigrants. What’s more, Trump’s youngest son Barron was born to the First Lady, a Slovenian immigrant. And Melania Trump’s own parents were sworn in as U.S. citizens last week after benefiting from what Melania’s lawyer acknowledged was “chain migration,” the process that her husband rejects. Trump’s intolerance of immigrants goes beyond hypocrisy to apparent self-loathing. And even if, like the President, you can’t help but hate the thought of foreign-born people like your mother and wife striving to become your countrymen, you need not be anxious: Contrary to the popular illusion that the United States is being inundated with immigrants, the percentage of Americans who are immigrants is actually relatively stable, even over the very long-term. Ten percent of people in America were immigrants in 1850, compared to 13.5 percent today.

Fortunately the majority of Americans, particularly in the Princeton community, have a much warmer, globalist philosophy on immigration. If that is you, and you have the ability to vote in the midterm elections this November, I implore you to pay attention to the fine details. The policies that matter, the policies that we must resist, are not only the policies that produce timely, blood-boiling news. Regress, like progress, is made incrementally, so there must be opposition to each attack on legal immigration no matter how dull it may seem. If you believe in an open America, make immigration a key issue in your decision-making process. Hold your representatives accountable to your views. Few things affect one’s life more than the country in which they live, the people and culture with which they work, study, and play. Your vote, and your attentive political activism, is your proxy for welcoming a would-be American with open arms.

Sam Parsons is a Wilson School major from Wangaratta, Australia. He is also a managing editor at The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at