The Numerical Impact of the Coronavirus and the Trump Restrictions on Migration

By David North on March 27, 2020

What will be the numerical impact on migration flows resulting from the combined impact of the coronavirus and Trump administration restrictions?

During World Wars I and II, under completely different immigration laws, the number of arriving migrants fell sharply. Will that happen again with our current war with the coronavirus, when the scene is complicated by the recent limitations put on migration by the administration?

My sense is that we will see a notable drop in some — but not all — migration measures, and, of course, there will be much larger ones if the crisis lasts longer.

Looking Back

As Table 1 in the 2018 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics tells us, there was a near record of 1,218,480 immigrants in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1914, with the war breaking out just four weeks later. By FY 1918 that number had fallen by more than 90 percent to 110,618, as international travel was difficult, and just possibly — America is immune to such thoughts — the wartime United States was a less attractive destination than it had been in earlier years.

There was a somewhat similar pattern a generation later with WW II; the smaller drop was from 82,998 in FY 1939 to 23,725 in FY 1943. Again, international travel was impossible for many.

What is interesting about those two sets of numbers is that during WW I we still had an immigration system with no numerical limits, but in WW II we were operating under the tight restrictions laid down in the 1920s. During the second war migration dropped less sharply than in the earlier one as the 1920s legislation reduced the volatility of the flows — we may be about to see something similar.

Measuring Migration

The expected reduction in migration, however, will be nothing like the apparent reduction in the value of stocks. Despite the availability of jet planes for some migrants, the cost, the seriousness, and the logistics of an international move are much stickier variables than those of stock prices. An investor can buy or sell freely a million dollars worth of stock in a quick call to the broker, or with a few keystrokes on the home computer with some of the newer trading arrangements. Migration decisions are made over a longer period of time and are harder to reverse than stock-market decisions.

There would appear to be five major groupings of migration measures, and some of these are much more subject to virus-fueled variations than others. I would array them as follows:

  1. Unfettered migration aspirations in which government plays no role; these were major matters before WW I, but are now less significant;
  2. Flows of migrants that are influenced, if not totally controlled by, governments; here is where the volatility is most present;
  3. Government-controlled migration levels, such as with the numerical ceilings on various types of legal immigrants and some nonimmigrant work programs, notably H-1B;
  4. The size of the foreign-born population; and
  5. The size of the visa backlogs.

Generally there is more room for variation at the top of the list, and less toward the bottom of these rankings.

So What Will Happen?

Group 1. The decision-making in the days prior to 1921 was largely done by the migrants, with some exceptions created on Ellis Island and the comparable port of entry on the Pacific Coast. (When I was first involved in immigration policy, I encountered an expert on the subject both of whose parents had been sent back from Ellis Island, but this was the exception, not the rule.) The difference between the 1914 and 1918 admission numbers largely related to decisions made by the aliens themselves.

We have few remaining situations in which this is still true. The number of applications for H-1B workers filed by employers is one of them, though the government through a new lottery system has made the early stages of this both easier and less expensive for employers, so we may be told in the next few days that there is an even larger demand for H-1Bs when the number of applications may be more influenced by what an employer-friendly Department of Homeland Security has done with the actual process, than the real demand.

Another largely unfettered measure is the number of aliens who file for the visa lottery each year. In FY 2018, the latest year for which data are available, there were 23,088,613 of them, all seeking one of the about 50,000 visas distributed each year. These numbers have been rising in recent years. What will happen to the numbers coming in the next application period in October?

Just as DHS made it easier for employers to apply for H-1B slots, the Department of State has made it more difficult for the visa lottery players; this year they have to have passports, which will discourage applications and will make numerical comparisons more difficult.

Fortunately for those of us with a statistical bent, the rules have not been changed in the F-1 student visa process (though the availability of visa interviews may be a new factor). Will we see another drop in incoming foreign students this fall? I expect we will. Trump's migration activities have made America less attractive to the alien college-age set, but to what extent?

Then there is the fourth and most obscure measure, one in which the government plays no role at all. It deals with emigration. These are the decisions by citizen Social Security beneficiaries to receive their benefit checks overseas, rather than in the States, with a bit under 1 percent of the world-wide beneficiaries making this choice. Most of these people are 65 or older. Will a noticeable portion of them opt to leave virus-threatened America for what may seem to be a safer place overseas? I will look at this in nine to 12 months to see if there is any news on this front.

Since the actual number of filings in the visa lottery and in the H-1B program are unlikely to have any bearing on the number of admissions, which are numerically controlled, the extent of the filings will simply show what would-be users of the program are feeling about the two programs. It is only with the college applicants — and maybe the retirees — that the actual numbers applying will relate to the number of arrivals and departures.

Group 2. The biggest impact of the virus and the recent administration restrictions falls on a large group of movements in which there are no numerical limits, but are subject to what I might call, with a tip of the hat to the Federal Reserve, quantitative tightening. The near closure of both the northern and southern borders, the bans on migration from some Islamic countries, the new and higher standards for the non-public charge standards, the virus-created reduction in visa interviews, various asylum and illegal alien decisions, and the like will make a considerable (if perhaps passing) impact on the number of aliens arriving in a number of groupings.

These categories include tourists from non-visa-waiver-program nations, illegal aliens of all kinds, asylum applicants, and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, among others. It is within these groups that we will see the most volatility. And the direction can be only in one way — down.

Group 3. With the exception of the numerically controlled flow of refugees — with that decision to made by the executive branch — there has yet to be any change in the numerical ceilings, set by Congress, for much of legal, permanent migration. Given the huge backlogs, notably in family-related migration, these flows can be expected to continue at current levels.

If someone on a waiting list decides, perhaps years after applying, not to use his or her family preference visa, there is surely someone behind them in the queue who will happily accept that visa.

Expect no changes in these flows.

Group 4. The number of the foreign-born in this country is, strictly speaking, not a direct measure of migration flows, though it mirrors decades of migration/no migration decisions. A momentary pause in some parts of the immigration scene, or one in place for only a few years, will unlikely make much of a difference in the total size of the foreign-born population. The estimates of the size of the illegal alien population may be a bit more variable, post-virus-onset; we will see.

Group 5. The final measure is that of the size of the visa backlogs; according to a Cato report, in 2018 these were 3,909,684 for the family categories and 835,763 for the employment categories.

Since many more people want to come to the States than the numerical ceilings allow, the number of backlogged visas climbs annually, and can be expected — virus or no virus — to continue to do so.