Trump running out of time to solidify immigration agenda after US election loss

Workers speed up their task to finish the metal wall ordered by Mr Donald Trump on Dec 2, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump's administration is pushing to finalise new immigration restrictions before his term ends in January, according to three senior homeland security officials, a last-gasp effort in a policy area that was a central focus during his four years in office.

The moves come even as Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rescind many of Mr Trump's immigration policies.

By finalising rules that have just been proposed, or issuing last-minute orders, the administration could slow down Mr Biden's efforts to undo many of Mr Trump's signature measures that have made it harder for immigrants to enter and settle in the United States.

One measure announced this week limits travel to the United States for Chinese Communist Party members and their immediate families. The State Department said on Thursday it was reducing the maximum validity of tourist visas for that group to one month from 10 years.

Another goal for Mr Trump's last few weeks in office is replacing a lottery system used to award H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers, according to officials with the US Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss government operations. Instead, a new selection process would favour visa applicants with higher-paying jobs.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller - considered the architect of Mr Trump's hardline immigration agenda - told Reuters over the summer that the regulations meant to drive up wages in the H-1B programme would be politically unpopular to reverse, since the changes are aimed at protecting US workers.

On Thursday (Dec 3), the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Facebook Inc, accusing the social media giant of discriminating against potential US hires by favouring temporary workers, including H-1B visas holders. A Facebook spokesman said it disputed the allegations in the complaint.

Other measures that could be hurried to the finish line include new rules to restrict access to asylum and a regulation that would allow federal immigration officials to collect DNA from family-based visa applicants and the US citizens or permanent residents who sponsor them.

Another measure would tighten visa rules for international students, cultural exchange visitors and foreign journalists.

The changes would take the form of regulatory actions that are crafted by agencies and do not require congressional approval but need to follow legal processes outlined in federal law.

News reports have also surfaced about a possible Mr Trump executive order to weaken the constitutional right to citizenship for all people born in the United States. A senior homeland security official told Reuters, however, the effort did not appear to be a priority for the White House.

Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli is spearheading the last-ditch immigration effort, one official told Reuters, as the president continues to promote unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud and has not conceded his Nov 3 election defeat.

The White House and DHS declined to comment.

'Before the clock runs out'

Mr Trump is not the first president to engage in a last-minute policy push, according to Republican strategist Alex Conant.

"Every outgoing administration tries to do as much as they can before the clock runs out," he said. "There are a lot of true believers in this White House who think immigration is bad for the country and are spending their last hours in power trying to cement their policies."

Most of Mr Trump's immigration plans are unlikely to be finished, however, before he leaves office and the ones that are hastily pushed through will be vulnerable to court challenges.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked two different fast-tracked Mr Trump rules targeting the H-1B programme. The judge said the administration failed to show "good cause" to skip regulatory steps that typically take months or longer.

Rules that have not taken effect by the time Mr Biden takes office on Jan 20 could be delayed and eventually rescinded, according to three experts in government regulations.

Any work in Mr Trump's final month in office will also likely be slowed down by the Christmas and New Year's holidays and possible departures of Mr Trump appointees, which is typical for outgoing administrations.

One closely watched policy area will be any final Mr Trump actions related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, which was instituted by President Barack Obama, whom Mr Biden served as vice-president.

The Supreme Court in June thwarted Mr Trump's attempt to end Daca, which offers deportation relief and work permits to some 646,000 "Dreamer" immigrants brought to the United States as children but who lack legal status.

After the ruling, the Trump administration said it would still consider ending the programme and then issued an order that narrowed its scope.

Even though a federal judge ruled against that move in November, the administration could try other last-minute avenues to hamper the programme.

"Nothing would surprise us," said Mr Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant America's Voice.

Mr Biden has promised to send legislation to Congress that would provide a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, including those enrolled in the Daca programme.

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