How America Would Look If Trump's Immigration Ban Was in Force Since 1965

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

In his State of the Union address, President Trump railed against America's current legal immigration system.

Given that this system first originated in 1965, it is worth considering how his policies would have altered America's flow of immigrants had Congress adopted his proposed policies in 1965.

Based on his statements and bills that he has endorsed, President Trump's ideal immigration policies would have banned at least 57 percent of all legal immigrants since 1965, nearly 23 million people.

Such an extreme policy would have radically changed America's population, economy, and culture.

From 1965 to 2016, nearly 40 million immigrants received legal permanent residency in the United States. President Trump's policies—fully implemented as he intends—would have reduced that number to just 17.2 million, banning at least 22.7 million people, a majority of all legal immigrants since 1965 (Table 1).

Nearly 60 percent of the banned immigrants would have been sponsored by U.S. family members-children, parents, or siblings. The rest of the reduction would come from fewer refugees and asylees, no diversity visa lottery and similar categories, and a much smaller legalization program for illegal immigrants.

For full figures, See Table 2 for a detailed breakdown of these categories.

Sources: Department of Homeland Security ; Immigration and Naturalization Service ; White House ; S.354 - RAISE Act ; H.R.4760 - Securing America's Future Act. *The category for spouses and minor children of residents would be preserved, but under Trump-endorsed bills, no visas would be issued (see text below)

American WWI poster reads: Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty Your Duty—Buy United States Government Bonds. For the 2nd Liberty Loan of 1917. Sackett & Wilhelms Corp. N.Y. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

This estimate only considers the direct effects of his policies on the categories that he would reduce, not how those reductions would affect other categories.

For example, fewer legal immigrants would reduce the number of naturalized citizens. This would, in turn, result in fewer citizens who could marry foreigners and sponsor their spouses and children.

Conversely, the fact that his proposed legislation would issue no visas to spouses and minor children of permanent residents would cause more immigrants to naturalize and sponsor their spouses and minor children. These two effects would at least partially offset each other.

President Trump's Policies

Diversity visas

Under the recent White House immigration framework, President Trump would eliminate the diversity visa lottery. This analysis also includes its predecessor programs that award green cards based primarily on the applicant's nationality.

From 1965 to 1983, many legal immigrants entered under quotas for nationals of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres on a first-come-first-served basis. The president has said that he opposes the lottery because it "hands out green cards without any regard for skill," and this criticism would apply with equal force to these earlier programs.

Ending the diversity visa lottery and similar country-based programs would have banned 9 percent of all legal immigrants to the United States since 1965: 3.4 million people.

Adult children, siblings, and parents

Under the White House framework, President Trump would limit family-sponsored immigration to spouses and minor children. This would have ended categories for adult children, siblings, and parents of U.S. citizens and for adult children of legal permanent residents.

Ending these categories would have banned about 23 percent of all legal immigrants from 1965 to 2016: 9.1 million people.

Minor children and spouses

Under the RAISE Act —a bill that President Trump endorsed —the president would redefine "minor child" under the immigration laws to include only those under the age of 18, down from the current 21. This would have excluded about 20 percent of all children in the spouses and minor children category as well as asylees.

Additionally, while the RAISE Act would theoretically keep the spouses and minor children of residents, it would prevent them from receiving any visas because it cuts their quota by the number of parolees-foreigners granted temporary admission for humanitarian reasons-who stay for more than a year.

Based on available figures and analysis, this number appears to be greater than the allotment of visas, meaning that in practice, spouses and minor children of residents would never receive green cards. These changes would have banned about 10 percent of all legal immigrants from 1965 to 2016: 4 million people.

Refugees, asylees, and Cubans

In 2017, President Trump lowered the refugee limit to 45,000. This analysis deducts any refugees admitted above this limit in any year since 1965.

Moreover, in his White House framework, as well as in the Trump-endorsed Securing America's Future Act, the president has advocated for changes to asylum that would make it much more difficult for people claiming asylum at the border to apply.

Finally, President Trump has stated that he believed that the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that prevented the deportation of Cubans back to the Cuba from the mainland was "unfair."

In January 2017, President Obama ended the practice, relieving Trump of the opportunity to do so. Had these policies been adopted in 1965, the United States would have reduced legal immigration by 7 percent: 2.8 million people.

Legalization for illegal immigrants

President Trump wants to end all illegal immigration by any means necessary—a wall, more agents, more surveillance, more deportations, etc. In addition to these measures, the Trump-endorsed Securing America's Future Act would spend more in five years on border security than Border Patrol has spent in the last 50 years.

Under President Trump's ideal policy, no illegal immigration would mean no legalization programs for future illegal immigrants. As part of his current negotiations, President Trump is willing to trade a legalization program for Dreamers, 16 percent of the illegal population, for his measures, but the illegal resident population in the United States was very low in 1965, less than 270,000.

Even if assuming that a 1960s Trump was forced to make this deal, it would have yielded a legalization of less than 100,000. Had illegal immigration been ended in 1965 or no legalization programs created, 8 percent of all immigrants since 1965 would never have received residency in the United States: 3.3 million people.

Finally, this analysis makes no alterations to the flow of employment-sponsored immigrants, even though President Trump's RAISE Act would eliminate the current categories for employment-sponsored immigrants and replace them with a points system.

It is likely that half of all employer-sponsored immigrants would not have qualified under its points system, but given that other immigrants may have taken their place, it is possible that the total number would have remained similar.

Figure 1 shows the trends in legal immigrants by category from 1965 to 2016, and Figure 2 shows what the trends would look like under Trump's ideal policy.


President Trump's policies would have radically altered the demographics of the United States and dramatically reduced its population. With no illegal immigration since 1965, the current immigrant population in the United States would further shrink by 11.3 million, with an unknown number of fewer entrants into that population since 1965.

These reductions in the number of immigrants would have had even more profound effects on U.S. population and labor force growth, as it would also eliminate the children and grandchildren of these immigrants.

Setting aside the cultural contributions of these immigrants, fewer workers would have translated into much lower economic growth. According to the National Academy of Sciences, immigrants contribute more than $2 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product-a 57 percent reduction would reduce the size of the U.S. economy by significantly more than $1 trillion.

Such a counterproductive policy would have made America a smaller, weaker, and less prosperous country than it is today.

Table 2: Legal Immigrants by Category, FY 1965-2016

Sources: Department of Homeland Security ; Immigration and Naturalization Service ; White House ; S.354 - RAISE Act ; H.R.4760 - Securing America's Future Act . *The category for spouses and minor children of residents would be preserved, but under Trump-endorsed bills, no visas would be issued (see text above) .

David J. Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.