Analysis: Visa Distribution Growing Under Trump

Posted by Frank Gogol

KEY FINDINGS

  • 4.5% more H1B visas have been awarded during the Trump presidency
  • The Trump admin has awarded 41% more H4 visas per year on average
  • A record 353,279 J1 visas were awarded in 2019, up 4% from 2016
  • F1 visas are down 30% under the Trump admin

In just a couple of weeks, U.S. voters will hit the polls to decide who will be the President of the United States in 2021. The candidates — incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — represent vastly divergent aspects of American politics. 

A cornerstone of President Trump’s 2016 election message and reason for victory has been his tough stance on immigration. Little has changed in the last four years.

Donald Trump has not been shy about his views on immigration while he’s been in office. He has maintained his stance on limiting immigration to protect jobs for Americans. On February 28, 2017, in a statement encapsulating his views on immigration in the U.S., he said:

“Protecting our workers also means reforming our system of legal immigration. The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on our taxpayers.”

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security released its annual report on visa issuance between 2015 and 2019. With the U.S. presidential election just a few weeks away, we wanted to take a closer look at the Trump administration’s track record on this hot-button topic with a specific focus on popular visa types. The findings were very, very surprising.

Immigration Impact During Trump Presidency

Using USCIS’s publicly available immigration data for visa distribution between 2015 and 2019, we explored the Trump administration’s impact on visa issuance for F1, H1B, H4, and J1 visas.

Based on the frequency of immigration bans and executive orders, you might think the Trump administration has dramatically reduced visa issuance, but we found that wasn’t the case. Most visa types, especially those for professionals, saw a significant jump over the first 3 years of the Trump presidency.

International Student Visas Down 30%

The first visa type we wanted to look at is the F1 visa, or the international student visa. To many immigration critics, the F1 visa represents the first step for many immigrants in becoming residents of the U.S. Limiting the distribution of F1 visas is a cornerstone in Trump’s efforts for culling immigration to the U.S.

The F1 Visa is a clear case where, during the Trump administration, a visa type has consistently been awarded less frequently with each passing year.

In 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, 471,728 F1 visas were awarded. During the first three years of the Trump administration, that number dropped compared to 2016:

  • -16.57% (2017) 
  • -23.06% (2018) 
  • -22.79% (2019) 

But for the sake of context, it’s worthwhile to take a longer look at F1 visa distribution. Under the last three presidents, the average number of F1 visa distribute per year was:

  • 264,142 (Bush, 2001-2008)
  • 487,072 (Obama, 2009-2016)
  • 373,569 (Trump, 2017-present)

So where does the Trump admin fall? Compared to the pro-immigration Obama administration, Trump has distributed ~30% fewer F1 visas per year. But compared to the conservative Bush administration, Trump has awarded ~30% more. 

F1 visa distribution under Trump is certainly on the decline. But that is more of a leveling-off of the huge numbers of visas that the Obama administration was awarding.

The other reason could be that students are scared to move to the U.S. for higher education. Around 70% of students have to take loans to fund an expensive U.S. education. Because they feel that their chances of getting a job and visa under the Trump administration are low, they are choosing to stay away. International students contribute $45B annually to the U.S. economy and with their declining numbers, U.S. universities are getting hurt the most.

H1B Visa Up 4.5% Under Trump Admin

Next up, we looked at the H1B visa. H1B visas holders account for more than half a million immigrants in the U.S. right now. And while not the most-awarded visa type, it is a highly-symbolic visa type in anti-immigration rhetoric. 

Trump administration policy about the H1B visa has been clear from Day One — the visa type is bad for American workers and needs to be awarded less frequently, if not eliminated completely. This has led to policy moves like the “Buy America, Hire American” executive order. This is just one example of the Trump admin’s efforts to stymie the distribution of H1B visas. But how effective have those efforts been?

According to the data, the Trump admind has not been effective at all.

In the final year of the Obama administration (2016), a record 180,057 H1B visas were awarded. During the first year Trump was in office (and the same year Hire American, Buy American went into effect) the number of H1B visas awarded went down by exactly 1008 and (or less than half a percent) and then increased over the next two years. 

In 2019, The Trump administration broke the record for the most H1B visas awarded in a single year with 188,123 — or ~4.5% more than in Obama’s final year. 

Trump Admin Annual Average for H4 Visas 41% Higher than Obama Admin

The next visa type we looked at was the H4 visa. This is a visa for the spouses of H1B visa holders and is considered by immigration critics to one of the biggest gateways for immigrants who do not add to the U.S. economy (as there are very few avenues for them to work) but who away from taxpayer-funded public services.

At first glance, the data seems to suggest that under President Trump the number of H4 visas awarded has declined. This certainly tracks with the Trump administration’s efforts to devalue and limit H4 visas

A comparison of averages, however, tells a different story. The average number of H4 visas distributed per year under each of the last two administrations was:

  • 92,730 (Obama, 2009-2016)
  • 131,069 (Trump, 2017-present)

That’s an average of 41% more H4 visas being distributed under the Trump admin annually.

Record Number of J1 Visas Awarded Under Trump Admin

Another popular visa type we wanted to take a look at is the J1 visa. The J1 visa is meant to promote “cultural exchange” and is notable because of the significant number of visas awarded each year.

The data for the J1 visa clearly shows that visa issuance has trended upward during the Trump administration.

The number of J1 visas awarded during the final year of the Obama administration (2016) was 339,712. During the third year of the Trump administration (2019), that number had risen by more than 4% to 353,279. 

It’s also worth noting that the Trump administration is responsible for the largest distribution of the visa type in a single year with 353,279 new J1 visas being awarded in 2019.

Methodology

The data for this analysis was taken from visa distribution data published in the USCIS 2019 annual report as well as earlier annual reports covering data from 2000 onward. A full list of the USCIS annual reports can be found here.

USCIS’s methodology for data reporting can be found here.


* Denotes a comparison of annual averages

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