No mothers, no Muslims: The new US immigration system

  • Written by  Rafia Zakaria
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Featured No mothers, no Muslims: The new US immigration system

Late last month, the Trump White House released its legislative framework for immigration reform. Its sticking points are familiar ones: the $25bn that President Trump wants to use to build the border wall he has promised his supporters; and a path to citizenship for beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), whose fates hang in the balance as the US wrangles over who to let through its borders. The White House framework also seeks to eviscerate visa quotas for "family reunification," via which parents and siblings of US citizens can migrate to the US (disparagingly termed "chain migration") and completely eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery.

The White House framework will not be passed unchanged; other bills also aiming at immigration reform have already been or will soon be introduced in the legislature. Internal administrative memos are further suggesting their own changes to immigration regulations. While none of these have yet made it to a vote, a look at their cumulative contents provides a view of the drastically altered immigration regime that would-be US immigrants could face in just a few months. Pre-empting some of these changes can enable those affected to take action now and avoid disappointment and discrimination later. 

The most significant changes will likely occur in the family immigration category. Even while Democrats have expressed opposition to limiting the "family re-unification" visa quotas to only spouses and children, it is quite likely that they will acquiesce to at least some cuts to the category. The reason is simple: to make significant gains in 2018, Democrats must make gains among white working-class voters. These voters have routinely expressed an animosity towards immigration in general and towards "chain migration" in particular. Signing off on cuts in this category, Democrats may decide, will endear them to this key demographic.

The consequence for current US citizens who have family members (parents and siblings) whom they would like to sponsor for an immigrant visa are grave. If the White House proposal is followed, they will no longer be able to do so for anyone except spouses and children under 18. It is imperative, therefore, that those US citizens and legal permanent residents (green card holders) who are intending to file immigrant petitions for parents and siblings do so immediately. Forms filed prior to the passage of any reform bill (even a day before) will be evaluated and processed under the old rules. The required forms are all available on the website for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and can be filed without the assistance of a lawyer. An incompletely filed petition is better than none at all. 

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The second major area of proposed reforms is in the H-1B visa category. The time-limited H-1B visas for skilled workers, which are sought by technology giants, are meant for scientists, engineers and computer programmers. Both the White House proposal and the Immigration and Innovation Act 2018 (referred to as I-squared) introduced by Senators Jeff Flake and Orrin Hatch make some mention of the category. The White House proposal wants to divert some of the visas freed up by the elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery to the applicants who are awaiting green cards filed via the H-1B programme. The Flake-Hatch proposal addresses the H-1Bs more comprehensively, its provisions centring on preventing US employers from replacing US workers with foreign workers. Consequently, it includes clauses that increase H-1B wages so that employers don't import workers from abroad to undercut labour costs and prevent employers from requiring a US worker to train an H-1B worker who would replace him or her. Penalties are proposed for large cash-rich employers that file a lot of H-1B petitions, so that they don't freeze out small businesses.

On the positive side, the I-squared bill would increase the current 65,000 H-1B visa quota by 20,000, with an unlimited number of exemptions for those with US master's degrees or above. Two other bits of good news include the elimination of the country-specific quotas so that applicants from, say, India or China will not be barred simply because too many from their country have filed. Finally, the employment restriction on the H-4 visas, issued to immediate family members (spouse and children under 21 years of age) of the H-1B visa holders, would be removed under I-squared, permitting spouses them to work while they are in the US.

The I-squared Bill is currently under review in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like the White House proposal, it is unlikely to pass in its entirety; however, many of its provisions overlap with the stated White House intent to create a "merit-based" immigration system rather than one based on family ties. Given this, and the fact that the Bill reveals the intent to keep talented foreign students, particularly those in science and technology fields in the US, a good portion of it could become law. Heading to the US for a Master's degree or higher is likely to pay greater dividends than before and may be worth the exorbitant expenditure that it usually involves.

Excluding Sunni Muslims

A revised H-1B visa system would likely to be good news for talented immigrants from most of the world, except if they are Sunni Muslims. On February 5, 2018, Foreign Policy magazine released the contents of a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo that declares that it would be "great value for the United States Government" if it were to "continuously evaluate persons of interest". These "persons of interest" include Sunni Muslims (both US residents and visa applicants) who are believed to be "vulnerable to terrorist narratives" based on a number of risk indicators. These indicators are "being young, male and having national origins in the Middle East, South Asia or Africa." The memo was produced at the request of US Customs and Border Protection to "inform United States foreign visitor screening, immigrant vetting and on-going evaluations of United States-based individuals who might have a higher risk of becoming radicalised and conducting a violent attack".

The most alarming of the DHS memo's contents include the fact that a single religious and regional category is targeted for these "extreme vetting" measures. If the provisions are adopted, which can be done far more easily because it is an interagency directive (and not legislation), then it would mean that even those Sunni Muslims who have already immigrated would be subject to prolonged surveillance and questioning. Those applying for immigrant or other visas from these categories can expect to have every aspect of their life, from posts on social media to every organisational membership, thoroughly scrutinised, with rejections issued based on the barest of pretexts. In reality, such scrutiny would be a far more effective "Muslim Ban" than the executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year.

With this sort of discriminatory "extreme vetting" in place, even the most brilliant doctor, engineer or scientist who applies for a US visa could be rejected because he is Sunni and Muslim, young and male, from South Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Furthermore, family members of Sunni Muslims in the US applying for tourist visas or other non-immigrant visas will likely find it more difficult to obtain them and hence to visit the US under any visa category. 

The new immigration regime likely to be brought into effect under the Trump administration, then, is anti-family, anti-Muslim but pro-genius. The suggested immigration reforms will likely affect millions of people around the world who have family or business interests in the US. US citizens who have family abroad and hope to sponsor them must do so immediately, and Sunni Muslim males planning to visit the US but not in possession of a tourist visa should apply without delay. Islamophobia and immigration are inextricably tied together in the Age of Trump, and anyone hoping to evade its xenophobic restrictions must act now.

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