Government & Politics

Stanford Expert Deconstructs Trump’s Immigration Policy

These rushed executive orders show a gap between the administration’s goals and reality.

February 09, 2017

| by Dylan Walsh


An international traveler arrives after U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts.

Does restricting immigrants from specific countries actually make America safer? | Reuters/Brian Snyder

Five days into his presidency, speaking at the Department of Homeland Security, Donald Trump announced two new executive orders. The first formalized his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The second greatly intensified efforts to deport people in the country illegally. “A nation without borders is not a nation,” he said.

Two days later, Trump signed another executive order. This one placed a 90-day ban on entry into the U.S. for citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries; it also shut the door on refugees for 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely. (The ban has been challenged in a number of courts around the country.)

“While these policies might make for effective scapegoating of immigrants or good political theater, there really isn’t much of a sound rationale for them,” says Jens Hainmueller, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of political economy by courtesy and co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab. Hainmueller has worked with governments and NGOs around the world to study policies involving immigrants and refugees. In conversation with Insights by Stanford Business, he reflected on the implications — economic, political, moral — of the Trump administration’s approach to these populations.

A lot is happening on the immigration and refugee fronts. What most draws your attention?

With these three executive orders, the new administration has initiated a rapid and seismic shift in U.S. immigration policy toward a more exclusionary approach. What struck me most — as a scientist who studies the impacts of immigration policies — was the glaring inconsistency between the purported goals of these policies and the empirical reality of immigration.

The first executive order aims to build a wall along the Mexican border that, estimates suggest, will cost $15 to 25 billion at a time when unauthorized immigration from Mexico is essentially coming to a halt. There are several other issues that people have pointed out, but that, to me, is a striking fact that we have good data on: It seems the wall is not really necessary.

The second order is a plan to aggressively step up the deportation of unauthorized immigrants at a time when immigration courts are tremendously backlogged. The most rigorous studies also suggest that unauthorized immigrants contribute about 3% of the U.S. private sector GDP per year.

And then this last order temporarily shuts down the refugee resettlement program in order to fight terrorism. But the data suggest that since the Refugee Act of 1980, which put current screening procedures into place, there hasn’t been a single fatal terrorist attack committed by a refugee in the U.S.

Is the U.S. process for resettlement particularly rigorous?

The U.S. vetting process of refugees is one of the most rigorous I’m aware of in international comparison. It takes multiple years and involves multiple agencies — the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the FBI, and so on — that conduct extensive security checks and interviews. On top of this, there have been additional screening measures for Syrians, who are now being singled out by the executive order for an indefinite ban.

The fact is, if you were a terrorist who wanted to harm the U.S., the last thing that you would do is apply for resettlement as a refugee. You would get caught.

It’s important to note that the new administration often talks about the mess we see in Europe. But the situation there is hardly comparable. To give you some reference: Since 2015 Germany has received about 1 million asylum seekers compared to a population of about 80 million. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. admitted about 85,000 refugees compared to a population of about 320 million.


While these policies might make for effective scapegoating of immigrants or good political theater, there really isn’t much of a sound rationale for them.
Jens Hainmueller

In Europe, most of the folks who come as asylum seekers also cross the border and then apply for refugee status. That’s a long process through which they might or might not receive it, but during that time they’re in the country. It’s impossible to vet all these people as they come across the border. In the U.S., instead, those who come in as refugees are carefully picked through this long vetting process.

Why does there appear to be so much confusion over the implementation of the most recent executive order?

There are many capable, credible, and highly skilled public servants who protect our borders and diligently manage the refugee resettlement program, but when you blindside bureaucrats with a careless executive order that’s handed down in a matter of minutes without briefing, then you create chaos and confusion.

What we need to realize is that effective immigration policy in a globalized world is actually pretty complex. You need to carefully think through the consequences and weigh the evidence. Otherwise there is a very good chance that these actions will backfire and harm millions of people.

That raises the question of the broader implications of rapid change in these policies. How does that ripple out internationally? What are the effects when things change very quickly?

One of the immediate consequences of sudden changes is that they lead to dysfunction. Bureaucracy isn’t sufficiently prepared to implement these policies; you can expect things to get fairly dysfunctional very quickly.

Take, for example, the executive order that aims to step up deportation efforts. These deportation proceedings are very complex. They must adjudicate between individuals who have legitimate asylum claims in the U.S. and those who don’t. With this executive order, the administration has really oversimplified a complex process. The immediate consequence is a dramatic extension of the logjam in immigration courts and detention centers. That’s very, very costly. I think it will leave many immigrants with legitimate claims in limbo.

Typically, you want a process around immigration policy in which you carefully consider options, look at the evidence, and then brief people. With all of the different types of immigrants and all of the links the U.S. economy has in a globalized world, you have to tread carefully.

Does the relative severity of these orders have analogs in U.S. history?

At least in my reading of immigration history, a blanket order that temporarily bans refugees and all visitors or immigrants from seven Muslim countries, without exception, is quite extraordinary. We had some strict policies in the postwar period, but under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 Congress essentially outlawed discrimination against immigrants based on national origin.

It’s also worth emphasizing that the U.S. is a party to the Geneva Refugee Convention, which requires signatory countries to take in refugees who face persecution. If you have this new blanket ban on refugees regardless of the merits of the individual cases, that, to me, violates this commitment that the U.S. has made.

A lot of evidence suggests that refugees are among the poorest, most vulnerable populations in the world. To have the richest country in the world essentially shutting down its resettlement program has devastating humanitarian consequences.

There has been very public discussion on the effects of these orders on business and science. How do they play out in the economy?

That’s really an area where you will see negative effects. The U.S. economy feeds on innovation, on the ability to attract global talent. This innovation often comes from individuals who have diverse backgrounds, who take risks, who bring new ideas — and these are often immigrants.

About 40% of Forbes 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their kids. This includes many of the most successful American brands: Apple, Google, Intel. The same goes for science. At the Stanford GSB, 40% of MBAs are citizens of another country. With these policies — emphasizing a more exclusionary approach and creating a climate that’s hostile toward immigrants — you will push some of this much-needed energy out of the U.S. economy and stymie discovery and innovation going forward.

Jens Hainmueller is a professor of political science, a professor of political economy by courtesy, and faculty co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, which focuses on the design and evaluation of immigration and immigrant integration policies.

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