The Trump administration has quietly and unofficially made it significantly harder for people to legally immigrate to the United States, according to numerous immigration lawyers who have dealt with these matters for years.
“Some percentage are going to be deterred from bringing family here, which I think is probably the goal,” said Jason Dzubow, an immigration lawyer who blogs at The Asylumist. “I think the goal is to reduce overall immigration.”
President Donald Trump may have focused his campaign on stopping illegal immigration, and his supporters chanted “Build the wall!” at his rallies. But though the much-promised wall is still unbuilt, his administration appears to have taken deliberate steps to make legal immigration more difficult.
Renata Castro, an immigration lawyer based in Florida, says the new steps have taken an already-stressful process and made it almost cripplingly nerve-wracking. Many of her clients have had nervous breakdowns, hair loss, and debilitating anxiety.
“I had a client I had to ask to go see a psychiatrist,” she said. “I said, ‘I think you would benefit from being on some kind of anxiety medication, because I don’t think you can handle the interview.’”
Attorneys and their staff are also facing unprecedented stress. Greg Siskind, who is based in Memphis and specializes in helping doctors immigrate to the U.S., said that several months ago, one of his partners started having a meditation coach come to the office every week. The coach focuses on helping the law firm’s staffers manage the stress.
“They really care about these cases,” Siskind said.
Mark Krikorian, who heads the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies and advocates for less legal immigration, said complaints about anxiety are silly.
“I’m sorry, but is it a stressful process? Yeah, I’m sure it is,” he said. “Applying for a job is stressful. All kinds of things are stressful. The idea that the federal government should run an immigration program on the honor system so it doesn’t cause people anxiety is laughable on its face.”
In the months after his inauguration, immigration lawyers started to notice something getting harder for their clients. Many people who immigrate to the United States are able to come here legally because they have a family member—a parent, a child, a husband or wife—who is a U.S. citizen. Trump and his allies derisively refer to this as “chain migration.” It’s how a huge percentage of immigrants legally come here—66 percent in 2013, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But just having a U.S. citizen as a family member doesn’t mean you can automatically and easily immigrate here. The process is arduous and time-consuming, and the Obama administration increased the amount of paperwork required.
One of the biggest hurdles for would-be immigrants is proving they have bona fide relationships with U.S. citizens. To do so, they have to submit documentation—birth certificates, marriage certificates, family photos, financial documents, you name it—to agents from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
If those agents determine that the relationship between the would-be immigrant and the U.S. citizen is authentic, then they issue a form called an I-130. That form is the first step to getting a green card—the permanent-residency document for the U.S.
And under Trump, that first essential step has gotten much harder—so much harder, in fact, that many would-be immigrants are giving up.
Krikorian said it’s no surprise that things have gotten more difficult.
“It makes perfect sense that it would be harder, and that’s as it should be,” he said.
“People got used to getting away with murder under the Obama administration,” he added, “and now that standards have tightened back up, they’re not liking it.”
For this story, The Daily Beast spoke with a host of immigration lawyers about what they’ve seen over the past year. They all said USCIS has started demanding more evidence to authenticate people’s relationships. The process has become so much more time-consuming that many attorneys are raising their fees, giving their clients so-called sticker shock. For people whose finances are tight, these price hikes can keep them from affording legal services. And without legal help, the process can be extraordinarily difficult to navigate.
A USCIS spokesperson said the agency has not issued any formal policy changes on this issue.
“USCIS understands that RFEs [requests for information] can cause delays,” said the spokesperson “However, the additional information provides assurance that the agency is maintaining the integrity of the immigration system.”
Castro said immigration agents recently demanded to interview two children, twins, whose stepfather was a U.S. citizen and whose mom was approved.
“In the past, this never happened,” she Castro said.
This is becoming an increasing typical practice, Castro said. USCIS is making more and more frequent requests for in-person interviews. In some cases, the interview sites are hours away from where her clients live, which means they have to pay for gas and childcare. Many clients also choose to pay for their own interpreters.
On top of that, there are growing fears of ICE agents showing up for these interviews. A USCIS official told immigration lawyers at a November conference in Nashville that they couldn’t guarantee ICE officers won’t show up at interviews.
“The prospect of having to go to the interview, and then if they’re here without papers, having an ICE agent there to arrest you when you’re trying to get your green card—it’s not great,” said Andrew Free, a Nashville-based immigration attorney.
“This is their plan: to make legal immigration really hard,” he added.
There are signs it’s working. USCIS data indicates that the agency is taking a harder line on I-130 petitions—those pre-cursors to green cards. In the third quarter of 2016—July through September—the administration approved just over 174,000 I-130 petitions, denied about 16,000, and had 939,000 pending applications.
In the same window of time this year, USCIS approved about 30,000 fewer I-130 applications. It rejected 1,000 more. And—perhaps the strongest indicator of change—its I-130 backlog increased dramatically: from 939,000 to 1,289,000.
Immigration lawyers say it’s gotten harder for people to come here legally, and that USCIS has been taking longer to approve I-130 applications—which may explain the ballooning backlog.
Ksenia Maiorova, an immigration attorney based in Orlando who frequently works with athletes, said USCIS agents have been extraordinarily demanding under the new administration.
“They’re asking for evidence that isn’t required by law and stating that that evidence is mandatory,” she said.
In particular, she said, USCIS agents have increasingly asked married immigrants to show proof that their finances are comingled with their American spouse’s. But many young couples choose not to mingle their finances, she added, and U.S. law certainly doesn’t require couples to share bank accounts.
“They’re imposing this burden on foreigners that’s greater than what the law imposes on Americans,” she said.
“They’re trying to push the envelope,” she continued. “I call it the culture of overreach, where they’re attempting to ever-so-slightly inflate the evidentiary standard to ask for things, just to see if it will fly.”
She added that because of these changes, it takes lawyers at her firm about 30 percent more time to help their clients get I-130s.
All these changes put immigrants under extraordinary stress—particularly in cases where a baffling document request from a USCIS bureaucrat can determine whether or not they can live in the same country as their husband or wife.
So these cases keep getting harder and harder. Castro said one immigration judge specifically told her things would get more difficult because of Trump.
“I remember the first hearing I attended in the new year,” she said. “He hadn’t been sworn yet into office and the judge told me, ‘Miss Castro, you realize there’s a new sheriff in town and some of the shenanigans you guys pull off—they’re not going to work anymore.’”
Updated 12/27 to add comment from a USCIS spokesperson.