Can the US benefit from Mexican immigration?

26.10.2020 11:20

US pays high price for Trump's migration policy

Elisabeth Radke communication
Institute for World Economy (IfW)

Curbing (irregular) migration - Donald Trump won the election four years ago with this campaign focus. Migrant workers should enter the country less, refugees too and Muslims not at all. The notorious wall to Mexico, however, primarily caused high costs, but is unlikely to have reduced irregular migration. Trump has achieved supposed successes in reducing migration above all in the area of ​​flight and asylum as well as labor migration, as a brief analysis by Tobias Heidland shows ( 1).

Although irregular migration, with the symbol of the great wall to Mexico, still played the largest role in Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign, the Trump administration has tried in the past four years to reduce the number of immigrants through regular migration, i.e. through the ( Non-) issuing of green cards and visas as well as a reduced admission of refugees as part of resettlement.

At the last known point in time, around 200,000 fewer green card applications were approved than at the beginning of Trump's term in office. “The 'Muslim Travel Ban', which makes entry or permanent residence impossible for people from predominantly Muslim countries, continues to play a major role here,” says Tobias Heidland, Head of the Research Center for International Development at IfW Kiel. This often affects the immediate relatives of US citizens, who have been granted green cards less and less under Trump.

In addition to the restrictions on permanent residence permits, there is also a negative trend in temporary visas. According to the motto “Buy American, Hire American”, companies should be encouraged to fill vacancies primarily with US citizens. To this end, the issuing of visas should become more performance-oriented in order to secure jobs for low-skilled Americans and at the same time not to deter high-skilled workers. "It is noticeable that the initial plan to make migration more performance-oriented has now been thrown overboard, as immigration is made much more difficult even for highly qualified people," says Heidland. The important H1-B visa line, which is mainly used by technology companies from Silicon Valley to bring specialists into the country, has also recently been cut. "The extraordinary importance of this visa line for the US economy has been proven by many studies, and unemployment does not play a role in this segment of the labor market with highly qualified and highly paid professionals," said Heidland. "There can be no positive effects on the economy through less immigration here."

In contrast to this significant reduction in labor migration, the symbolically important wall on the southwest border has so far had no influence on the number of immigrants. “Apart from the logistical and, above all, financial challenges, the general effectiveness of border fortifications as an instrument to combat irregular migration is questionable.” Studies suggest that fences and walls divert migration flows onto other routes rather than preventing them. The positive effects on the wages of low-skilled Americans, who should benefit from the reduced competition from illegal immigrants, are correspondingly small. Trump's tough line on the subject of deportations is also not reflected in higher numbers. "Due to overburdened courts and a lack of cooperation between local authorities and the federal immigration police, the figures available so far show that on average there were fewer deportations under Trump than under Barack Obama."

The number of refugees admitted as part of the resettlement program was also significantly reduced under Trump. For 2017, the Obama administration increased the admission quota of those who are flown directly from refugee camps worldwide to the USA as particularly vulnerable people to 110,000. In the 2020 fiscal year it was just under 18,000. Applications for asylum at the Mexican border have also been systematically made more difficult, for example by a new processing fee. "This departure from the provision of the international public good" protection from persecution "can be seen as part of the 'America first' policy and the departure from multilateralism."

How the situation would change in the event of Joe Biden's election victory, one can only speculate, said Heidland. However, especially in the area of ​​regular migration, there could be a political tug-of-war if the majorities are not clear. And: The massive restrictions on the issuing of work visas could already cause lasting economic damage, for example if information technology companies consider relocating, not to mention the negative effects on the international reputation of the USA.

Brief analysis: Four years of Trump's immigration policy in the USA: Less immigration, but different than promised (

Media contact:
Elisabeth Radke
Press officer
T +49 431 8814-598
[email protected]

Institute for World Economy
Keel line 66 | 24105 Kiel
T +49 431 8814-774
F +49 431 8814-500

Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. Tobias Heidland
international Developement
T +49 431 8814-367
[email protected]

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