· 3 min read · Features

Protectionism or pragmatism: Will the real Trump immigration policy please stand up?

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With Donald Trump being inaugurated tomorrow, we still don't have a clear picture of what his immigration policy will look like

With Donald Trump’s inauguration taking place tomorrow, UK businesses are no more clear on what the US immigration landscape may look like under a Trump presidency than they were before the election.

Trump’s proposed list of cabinet appointees offers a range of views on the issue of immigration, with many coming to the White House from outside politics. Perhaps most controversial is Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, selected by Trump to serve on the White House team as Attorney General.

Sessions’ primary focus during recent years in the Senate has been to block all immigration-friendly legislation. Labelled an immigration restrictionist, Sessions has opposed all bipartisan attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In addition to being openly anti-immigrant, the senator was denied a federal judgeship during the Reagan-era amid accusations of racist remarks. While Sessions has stated he does not support a ban on all Muslims, he is certainly not in favour of increasing foreign access to the US.

But Sessions isn’t the only anti-immigration proponent linked to Trump’s leadership team. Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State known for extreme anti-immigrant views and connections to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organisation labelled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, looked to initially be headed for the Secretary of Homeland Security position. While Trump ultimately chose John Kelly, a retired Marine General with strong views on border security, Kobach supporters are urging Trump to create a new position of immigration czar for him.

Interestingly, however, Trump has tapped a number of cabinet possibilities whose positions are more moderate and favourable to immigration, including Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor and James Mattis for Defence Secretary. Appointees like Puzder, a fast-food CEO with a track record of supporting pro-immigration policies, and Mattis, a retired Marine General who has rejected the Trump campaign’s comments regarding bans on Muslim immigration, could be a silver-lining in the Trump-led government. In addition, industrialist appointments like Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and Silicon Valley veteran Peter Thiel as a key tech adviser, suggest Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric may be weakening.

With a strong business-orientated strand to his cabinet, it is possible that the fears of demolishing key visa categories, particularly the H-1B programme, could fade away. The H-1B visa is intended to help companies hire skilled foreign labour, but has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the anti-immigration side. While it is unlikely that businesses would see an increase in H-1B numbers, currently capped at 65,000 per year with an additional 20,000 available for persons who have a US Master’s degree, the prospect of keeping the programme intact is a welcome relief to those who feared Trump’s initial anti-immigration stance would trickle into the highly-skilled arena. Of course, with Sessions acting as a key player in Trump’s cabinet it is dangerous to let out a sigh of relief just yet – it was Sessions who, along with Trump, suggested scrapping it all together.

The H-1B is not the only skilled-worker category facing possible termination. Trump’s strong stance against trade, including opposition of the NAFTA agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US, means that the NAFTA-based TN visa for Canadian and Mexicans working in the US could be scrapped. This could leave a significant number of workers without immigration status, so any employers with operations in the US that may be employing people on these visas needs to be thinking about possible changes to a new visa status. Unfortunately, the most appropriate alternative is often the H-1B, and the likelihood of getting one of these coveted visas is slim.

As Trump’s cabinet continues to make its way through the Congressional approval process, the news may not be all doom and gloom for businesses operating in America and looking to hire foreign talent. We shouldn’t look for sweeping improvements to the immigration landscape, but the addition of strong business leadership in the White House could help to balance the anti-immigrant stances of some of the appointees. As someone with a keen professional interest in what happens next, I’ll be one of those keeping glued to President Trump’s Twitter feed for any more substantive policy announcements.

Christi Jackson is an attorney and head of the US practice at Laura Devine Solicitors in London