WASHINGTON—President Trump and his top aides are weighing rules designed to clamp down on countries whose nationals overstay short-term visitor visas as part of a broader push for new ways to curb immigration.
The effort would target nationals of countries with high overstay rates of such visas, which include the African nations of Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to Department of Homeland Security data. The U.S. as part of a new rule would tell the countries’ governments that if rates don’t reverse, then future visas could be shorter or harder to get, according to an administration official who described the move as putting those countries “on notice.” Ultimately, nationals from countries with high overstay rates could be barred entirely, though the official said no ban is now under consideration.
The White House also is seeking to push through other rules that would tighten student and investor visas, and it is pursuing what some describe as its most ambitious goal on immigration: preventing immigrants from coming or becoming citizens if they are likely to use publicly funded benefits. The overstay proposals, for visas known as B1 or B2s, haven’t been previously reported.
While President Trump has not been able to get Congress to act on his signature campaign issue of building a border wall, there’s another important immigration story developing.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said the administration considers it a priority “to reduce overstay rates for visas and the visa waiver program—and it’s well known that the administration is working to ensure faithful implementation of immigration welfare rules to protect American taxpayers.”
Other rules the administration is considering include toughening requirements for investments that qualify a foreign investor for a visa, particularly in rural areas. It is expected to publish a rule pulling work authorization for the spouses of some high skilled H-1B visa holders. And the administration is considering setting a maximum length of authorized stay for student visas.
The moves show the Trump administration is looking to tighten the legal framework around immigration, a core issue for the president, well beyond the much-discussed southern border. Frustration from senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller with the inability of DHS leaders to write and publish the regulations drove the departures of several department leaders last week, including Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to administration officials.
It comes as the administration is looking to slow the flow of migrant families at the border, including a review of how to relocate detained immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities after Mr. Trump floated the idea last week.
Critics of the attempt to rework rules about public benefits, in particular, say the administration is trying to do through executive action what it can’t get through Congress.
“It would serve to dramatically constrain the amount of people who are able to come to the United States on any number of visas,” said Doug Rand, a former Obama administration official and co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology firm for families navigating the immigration process.
“The implementation will likely cause sharp demographic changes in U.S. immigrants, including shifting legal immigration away from Latin America and towards Europe,” said Sarah Pierce of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute think tank.
One senior administration official said last week that the administration expected to see its rules blocked by federal courts in the San Francisco-headquartered Ninth Circuit, by plaintiffs seeking out the friendly jurisdiction. But the quicker the regulations were published, the quicker any challenges could be advanced to the Supreme Court, where the administration believes it has more sympathetic justices.
Pushing ahead on the new rules will be officials including acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan; his acting deputy, David Pekoske; the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Albence; and acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders.
Many of the new rules involve U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the director of which, L. Francis Cissna, has been criticized by administration officials in recent days. Mr. Cissna’s backers believe he is being punished for trying to craft rules that pass legal muster.
A USCIS official said Friday in a statement that Mr. Cissna “is relentlessly focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda forward to the maximum extent permitted under the law, and to say otherwise is false.” The official also pointed to rules published under Mr. Cissna changing the H-1B program for high-skilled immigrants, which were put out earlier this year.
Mr. Trump said Friday he was giving strong consideration to the idea of moving detained immigrants to sanctuary cities, or places that typically refrain from helping federal authorities identify undocumented immigrants for deportation unless they have committed serious crimes. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, speaking on ABC’s “This Week, said of that plan: “We’re looking to see if there are options that make it possible and doing a full and thorough and extensive review.”
That plan drew criticism from Democrats over the weekend. On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) said Mr. Trump’s statement is “clearly a political move.” He said Mr. Trump is “using immigrants as pawns in a political game of chess.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway also said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Congress should work to change the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a law she said has encouraged immigrants to bring children to the border.
She also called for congressional action to change a longstanding federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, which she said forces the administration to “release children into the interior of this country” after 20 days of detention.