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Taking it Online: Where’s the Evidence? Moving Toward Evaluating U.S. Immigration Policies

By: Kendall Banks

September 9, 2020 ~

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan think tank that aims to improve immigration policy through research and analysis, the Trump administration has enacted more than 400 policy changes with the goal of limiting both legal and illegal immigration (Pierce and Bolter 2020). Immigration can serve as a foreign policy tool to advance national security (Franzblau 1997), and since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent reorganization of the federal immigration enforcement structure, national security and immigration enforcement have been intimately intertwined (Mittlestadt et al. 2011). The current administration has increased enforcement throughout the United States and has used foreign policy mechanisms such as threatening tariffs or withholding development assistance to achieve its aims. As the United States approaches election day, it is an opportune time to consider the sweeping changes made under the Trump administration.

This blog builds on the MPI report cataloging the administration’s 400+ policy actions by reviewing 55 policies categorized as immigration enforcement (Pierce and Bolter 2020, 24-49). These policies often require interaction between actors at multiple levels of government as well as international and non-governmental entities, and have also been flagged for human rights concerns. The present analysis attempts to identify the agencies involved in implementing these policies and the policies’ potential effects, to build a framework to understand the costs and the benefits of more restrictive immigration policy and its impact on public welfare from a foreign policy and national security lens.


Immigration law in the United States is structured at the federal level by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which outlines immigrant statuses among other provisions. The four main immigrant statuses in the United States are legal permanent residents (green card holders), nonimmigrants (temporary visa holders), refugees/individuals seeking humanitarian protection, and undocumented. Immigration categories and recent trends are detailed in a fact sheet from the nonpartisan think tank American Immigration Council, and in a page of definitions and a snapshot of U.S. immigration in 2019 from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Policies under the Trump administration have targeted all categories of immigrants, acting upon the “previously fringe idea” that both legal and illegal immigration are a threat to U.S. security and economic interests (Pierce and Bolter 2020).


The immigration enforcement policies identified in the MPI report relate to both border security and interior enforcement (in other words, enforcement that occurs in areas other than the border) and span January 2017 to July 2020. Among other actions, these policies have increased the speed of screening and deporting migrants identified for removal, often through agreements with international and domestic law enforcement or immigration enforcement agencies; reduced support and safety nets for migrants awaiting ruling on their immigration status; increased investigation into family units and workplaces; expanded data collection and sharing between agencies; and increased the identification and deportation of non-citizens accused of committing a crime. While all categories of immigrants are impacted, the policies place a heavy emphasis on asylum seekers and immigrants identified for removal who have been taken into state or local custody for committing a crime. The policies and/or directives use unclear language such as “illegal alien,” “criminal alien,” or simply immigrants, often obscuring which category of immigrant is being targeted.

Responding to these policies and executive actions requires action by (at minimum) the agencies and organizations described in Table 1. Unsurprisingly, most agencies are federal, but these policies demand action at all levels of government and by non-governmental organizations. While not an exhaustive list, the breadth of actors listed below suggests significant resource implications at all levels of government, domestically and internationally.

Table 1: Agencies and Organizations Involved in Policies Related to Immigration Enforcement Enacted Under the Trump Administration

These policies are often promoted as measures to enhance public safety or national security, ensure the sanctity of the immigration system (i.e., eliminate fraud), and protect U.S. workers. However, of the 55 policies reviewed, only three provided any evidence or justification related to these goals. Two policies cited increases in asylum seekers or illegal border crossings in recent months or years. The third policy, reinstating the Secure Communities federal-state data sharing program, offered no evidence for restarting the program, although the Secure Communities website details the number of non-citizens removed since the program started. Without evidence or justification, the goal(s) of the policies - beyond restricting entry of foreign nationals to the United States - are often unclear.

The effect of these policies on 1) cooperation between federal and non-federal actors and 2) costs to taxpayers is also not yet clear. Levels of cooperation vary by location and policy, and although the administration’s January 25, 2017 Executive Order mandated hiring 10,000 additional ICE agents, an increase in ICE manpower has not actually occurred (Pierce and Bolter 2020). The above agencies are often already responsible for implementing or enforcing immigration policy, so while their priorities may have shifted, the cost of making these shifts requires further research.

Generally, it seems that these policies:

  • Create an insecure environment for immigrants and suggest that no immigrant is safe from removal, regardless of visa type or immigration status. In one example, non-citizens awaiting a U visa (provided to victims of a crime who can provide useful information to law enforcement) can now be removed more easily.

  • Have - together with the other policies enacted during the administration - effectively ended refugee resettlement and asylum by layering various policies together (Pierce and Bolter 2020), reducing protection for the most vulnerable individuals.

  • Provide significantly more power to the federal immigration enforcement apparatus, while at times reducing transparency. These policies also push local law enforcement to expand their role in immigration enforcement.

  • Coerce international and domestic partners into complying with federal immigration policy by withholding funding, sanctioning visas, or threatening to impose tariffs, rather than by developing cooperative agreements that meet partners’ goals.

What does this mean for immigration policy moving forward? The lack of evidence provided to justify these policies is concerning. It points to a need for further research and evidence gathering by policymakers who hope to develop humane and effective immigration policy that promotes U.S. public safety, national security, and immigration enforcement goals. To be effective and sustainable, policies should be evidence based, with clear rationale for why a certain policy was enacted, rather than based on perceptions about the potential threat immigrants pose to U.S. interests.

Some suggested areas for additional research include:

  • The cost of rapid immigration policy change to U.S. residents (including immigrants), particularly where domestic and international cooperation is required. As many of these policy changes have been implemented through executive action or policy guidance at the departmental level, their fiscal impact appears not to have been evaluated[2], suggesting that the cost of these policy changes is unknown.

  • The benefits of restricting legal immigration: West (2011) describes the complexity of determining the benefits of immigration overall given the variety of immigrant circumstances and complexity of economic calculations. Further research is needed to compare the costs of policy changes to the benefit of reduced immigration by separating the benefits that documented (legal) versus undocumented immigrants bring to the United States.

  • How to communicate the nuances of immigration costs, benefits, and related policy and its impact to U.S. residents, either directly or indirectly.

With such widespread policy change involving many actors, evaluating the benefits of immigration against the fiscal impact and non-economic costs of restrictive immigration policy can support policymakers in developing effective policy that involves cooperation and collaboration, rather than coercion and fear, to encourage evidence-based policymaking.

Footnotes [1] Recalcitrant countries are defined as countries that are uncooperative or regularly refuse to receive their nationals identified for removal from the US on grounds of being inadmissible or deportable (CRS 2020).

[2] This is in comparison to the process by which the Congressional Budget Office conducts cost estimates for proposed legislation to determine the legislation’s expected budgetary consequences.


CRS. 2020. Immigration: “Recalcitrant” Countries and the Use of Visa Sanctions to Encourage Cooperation with Alien Removals. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

Franzblau, Kenneth J. 1997. “U.S. Immigration and Foreign Policy.” Research paper, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

Mittelstadt, Michelle, Burke Speaker, Doris Meissner, and Muzaffar Chisti. 2011. “Through the Prism of National Security: Major Immigration Policy and Program Changes in the Decade since 9/11.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Pierce, Sarah, and Jessica Bolter. 2020. “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalogue of Changes Under the Trump Presidency.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

West, Darrell M. 2011. “The Costs and Benefits of Immigration.” Political Science Quarterly. 126, 3(Fall):427-443.

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