How Difficult Was It to Get an Immigration Benefit During the Trump Years?

N.Y. Times article inspires a look at some unexpected numbers

By David North and Kathleen Sharkey on June 3, 2021

On May 31, the New York Times wrote about the Biden administration’s plan to make immigration easier for aliens. It says that the Trump administration made it more difficult to secure immigrant status, which, in some instances, was the case.

But how difficult was the process during the last four years? Did USCIS, under Trump, deny a majority of the applications before it? Maybe a third of them? A quarter? Hardly.

What the media always ignores in these situations is that immigrants routinely have batting averages in the .900 neighborhood. (In baseball .400 is great.) The government in about nine cases of 10, says “yes” to whatever the alien (or his or her employer) wants.

Yes, Trump’s USCIS made it marginally more difficult to get some immigration benefits, but an examination of the statistics during the last three months of the administration (October-December, 2020) shows that it made 1,498,658 decisions on 53 different issues (many of major importance, some less so) and it said yes 1,330,094 times, while denying only 164,983 petitions. That’s a batting average of .888 for the migrants.

That 1,330,094 plus 164,983 adds to 1,495,077, not to 1,498,658, is because there is a minor bureaucratic variable in these numbers that a USCIS statistician explained to me over the phone years ago, though I forget the details. The disagreement is only 0.24 percent of the larger total.

We looked at the same dataset to see what the approval (or batting) average was back in the last three months of the Obama administration, (October-December 2016). It was .927; a year earlier it had been .883, so the Trump .888 was bracketed by the two Obama-era numbers, showing that no matter who is in power, the immigrant usually wins. (The small minority that loses, of course, has the ear of the Times.)

The USCIS data source used throughout this article was described in some detail in an earlier posting, in which we criticized it for being badly laid-out and just about impossible to read. It is the “Number of Service-wide Forms by Quarter”. It, however, carries a lot of useful data.

Not only is there a continuity in approval/denial ratios, there is also a nearly consistent trend of saying “yes” overwhelmingly to all applications, whatever they are. We examined 28 categories of immigration benefits, all of those that had 2,500 or more decisions in the first quarter of FY 2021, which would suggest 10,000 decisions a year per category.

Of these 28 categories, 22 had approval rates in the range of 75 percent to 95 percent, three had higher approval rates, and three had lower ones. During that quarter (under the Trump administration), the most likely petitions to be approved, at 98.9 percent, were for those in the controversial DACA program for “childhood arrivals” of illegal aliens, a surprise to me. At the other end of the spectrum, with only 16.6 percent approvals, were asylum claims, no surprise at all.

But deciding a case, one way or the other, is not the only significant variable. What the Trump USCIS did not do was as important as it what it did do, as the Times notes. For example, at the end of the Obama years, there were 632,937 naturalization applications pending; by not keeping up with the applications, this figure rose to 1,015,055 at the end of the Trump years. This is a difference of more than 380,000 potential citizens and, of course, voters. Assuming that a majority of this 380,000 would have voted for Biden, non-action on these applications may have reduced Biden’s winning margin by tens of thousands of votes — something someone might examine.

Somewhat similarly, the number of pending applications for U visa green cards (for alleged victims of crime) was 160,347 at the end of the Obama administration; four years later, it had increased to 268,699. While I am critical of the non-action on naturalization papers, I see the non-action on 100,000 or so U applications in a different light. There is a ceiling of 10,000 a year on this category (which I argue should not exist). What’s the hurry in acting on these applications, which will simply add to a backlog of those with approved petitions that cannot lead to a green card, or not for a long time?

In an earlier posting, we showed that a substantial percentage of those turned down by USCIS in the U category were denied because of a criminal record of their own.