With respect to the new immigration policies that are inevitable under the Trump administration, most of the attention has been focused on changes at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. But immigration security starts beyond our borders, and one critical agency, the State Department, has largely escaped accountability for policies and programs that over time have greatly eroded our security and the integrity of our immigration system by facilitating the entry of millions of foreigners who have settled here illegally — including some who want to attack us.
Team Trump will have a laundry list of urgent immigration-related tasks at Foggy Bottom, including action on visas and passports, not to mention refugees. The biggest challenge for the incoming appointed leadership will be overcoming the senior career managers’ obliviousness to the impact of key policies on American communities (as opposed to the travel industry or the clients of immigration lawyers) and their clear preference for facilitating travel over preventing unqualified or dangerous foreigners from entering.
Under Obama, annual visa issuances in Brazil have doubled and issuances in China have quintupled, as the review process appears to be near rubber-stamp level in these two countries.
Under the Obama administration, the annual number of temporary visas issued has gone up by more than 5 million — an increase of 47 percent, from 5.8 million issued in 2009 to 10.9 million in 2015, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. This happened even as more countries were added to the Visa Waiver Program, which lets citizens of certain countries enter without a visa.
Too many of these visas were mistakes. DHS reports that in 2015, more than 500,000 people who came in as short-term temporary visitors did not go home as required, not counting an unknown additional number of student or work visa overstayers. These cases are thought to represent about 40 percent of the total population of illegal aliens. Building a wall will not keep them out; that’s the job of the State Department.
The new secretary of state can start by shredding Obama’s Executive Order 13597, issued in 2012, which essentially directed the State Department to issue more visas for tourism and business, and specifically to crank out more visas in Brazil and China.
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Under Obama, annual visa issuances in Brazil have doubled and issuances in China have quintupled, as the review process appears to be near rubber-stamp level in these two countries. Ninety-five percent of all short-term visa applications are approved in Brazil and 90 percent are approved in China.
More extreme vetting for this large flow of foreign visitors is certainly warranted, because State has let a few bad ones slip through in recent years: San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik; Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, an unsuccessful college student arrested in 2012 for plotting to bomb the Federal Reserve; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 Nigerian underwear bomber; and Thomas E. Duncan, an apparent visa overstayer from Liberia who died of Ebola in Texas in 2014, and also infected a Dallas nurse.
The goal of the vetting is not just to detect those who pose a threat, but also to prevent more illegal immigration, which displaces Americans and legal immigrants from job opportunities and burdens taxpayers with the cost of welfare services for the illegal aliens and their children. Even though many, many applicants resort to fraud and misrepresentation to obtain a visa, State Department management does not make fraud prevention a high priority. No new laws are needed in the short term, just firmer application of the existing ones and strong leadership so that officers know that proper diligence and exposing fraud and threat will be valued — not shunned.
New leadership can mandate better officer training, the establishment of a systematic method to assess security and fraud risks, more interviews, more verification of documents and statements, social media analysis, and, especially, analysis of the overstay data.
Trump’s State Department should also resurrect enforcement of a provision of the law that has been defined out of all utility in immigration control – Section 212(a)(4), which states that applicants who are likely to become a “public charge,” or dependent on government welfare, are inadmissible. Current policy is to count only cash-based assistance so visitors can take advantage of almost any welfare program and never be denied entry as a result. For example, a woman who comes here and gives birth in a U.S. hospital courtesy of taxpayers, returns home within six months, and then applies for a visa to do it again a few years later would not necessarily be refused on public charge grounds, as pre- and post-natal services are exempted from the definition. Foreign students and guest workers, too, should lose their status if they receive any form of welfare. In 2015, only 35 temporary visa applicants were refused entry on public charge grounds.
Speaking of foreign students and workers, the number of admissions has shot up under the Obama administration. These visas are frequently overstayed or used as a pretext for entry, and are coveted by terrorists because they allow a long duration of stay. State, like Congress, has been extraordinarily deferential to the higher education industry in setting policies, even to the point where now our consular officers overseas are required to help staff college fairs to assist U.S. schools in recruiting foreign students. In addition, officers are told to ignore the section of the law that says applicants must show a likelihood to return home, and suspend all judgement on applicant credibility — and not determine whether it makes any sense whatsoever to allow hundreds of thousands of unattached young foreigners into the country to take classes at community colleges, marginal schools, or vocational programs like dog grooming academies, especially when terrorist groups are promising to infiltrate our visa programs.
Ditto for the much-abused exchange visitor programs, most of which are really just cheap labor visas glorified with the trappings of “cultural diplomacy.” Each year, more than 350,000 “exchange” visas are issued to nannies, life guards, chambermaids, ski instructors, electricians, and even teachers, doctors, and research assistants. The sponsors and third-party middlemen are making money hand over fist thanks to their cushy relationship with State officials, who look the other way at this multinational employment agency arrangement that persists even after scandals involving sex trafficking, child abuse, workplace injuries, and indentured labor. There is no public diplomacy benefit when exchange visitors go home — if they go home — with a bad experience. The bureau in charge is desperately in need of overhaul, and the number of visas should be slashed.
Many other problems demand attention. Team Trump should look into indications that the Obama administration has worked to suppress visa refusal rates in certain countries to help them qualify for visa waivers. Border crossing cards issued to Mexicans have long been a vehicle for illegal migrants and workers; currently there are about 10 million in use, often by imposters who can easily thwart the non-biometric screenings at the land ports of entry.
We can expect the Trump administration to take a fresh look at refugee resettlement, not just to put the brakes on admissions from risky places, but ideally also to give greater weight to the concerns of the local communities where they are placed by a secret confab of State Department officials and resettlement contractors.
Government officials in the dozens of countries that refuse to take back their deportees might want to make that trip to Vegas and Disneyland now, as President-Elect Trump has indicated that he will not put up with their recalcitrance, and could impose visa sanctions if they persist. It will be fun to see who winces more, the foreign government officials or the people who will have to deliver the bad news.
But eventually, some laws will need to be changed in order to bring our legal immigration system into alignment with our national interest. This will require eliminating certain superfluous legal immigration categories like the visa lottery, siblings and other older family members. State, with new leadership, could become an effective advocate for these reforms. The lottery in particular is a drain on agency resources, and generates a shocking amount of fraud. The sibling category is hopelessly oversubscribed and new applications should not even be accepted.
For these reasons and more, it is critical that Trump’s State Department appointees be chosen not only for their foreign policy and national security creds, but also for their willingness to rein in the travel facilitation and immigration expansionist culture there that is at the root of so many bad policies.
Jessica M. Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.