NEW YORK, Jan 4 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is ramping up calls on the U.S. Congress to stop legal immigrants from sponsoring extended family members who want to move to the United States, saying so-called "chain migration" poses a threat to national security.
Even without legislative action, however, the number of immigrants approved for family-based visas has dropped this year to the lowest level in more than a decade, a Reuters review of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data shows. The drop has not been previously reported.
The Trump administration has taken a series of measures to more closely scrutinize legal immigration. These steps have been overshadowed by Trump's more public efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, such as his calls for a wall along the Mexican border and more arrests of people living in the country illegally.
Lately though, Trump has increasingly been taking aim at chain migration, saying it allows a single immigrant "to bring in dozens of increasingly distant relations," with "no real selection criteria." He said a Bangladeshi man who set off a homemade pipe bomb in a crowded New York City commuter hub in December was a prime example of the dangers of the system.
Immigration advocates counter that no one automatically qualifies for a visa because a relative is already in the United States. All immigrants undergo security vetting and can face years-long waits before they are given a green light.
The intensified focus on chain migration has been accompanied by an overall slowdown in adjudications of family-based visas, known as I-130s, the Reuters review shows. The number of approvals dropped by nearly a quarter in the first nine months of 2017 to around 406,000 compared to the same period a year earlier when approvals were more than 530,000, despite a similar number of applications during both periods, USCIS data showed.
The drop was even starker when looking only at I-130s approved for relatives who were not immediate family members. Those fell by 70 percent in the same period, from more than 108,000 in the first nine months of 2016 to 32,500 in the same period in 2017. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2CaWNJb). The entire 2017 fiscal year had the lowest number of approvals for extended family visas since 2000.
USCIS said that since there are a limited number of visas for this category, it prioritizes processing visas that are more immediately available. The agency also said there are normal year-to-year fluctuations in the number of visas that are filed and decided.
At the core of the administration's long-term policy goal is a belief that immigration should be merit-based.
"Those people are just coming in based on connection to a family member," the new director of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna said in a telephone interview, referring to chain migrants. "That lack of selectivity; it takes us away from where we want to go as a country."
Cissna said no specific policy guidance has been put in place at USCIS to change the way family-based visas are issued. He also said there were no plans to restrict visas for immediate family members and pointed out that approvals of visas and citizenship applications overall are still high.
He has said, however, that his agency is looking closely at all visa categories to root out fraud. USCIS said separately that closer scrutiny could lead to longer processing times.
For example, H-1B temporary work visas for high-skilled workers are facing more hurdles, and applications are receiving far more requests for evidence, slowing down the whole program, according to immigration lawyers and data provided by the government.
USCIS has also put in place new interview requirements for U.S. citizens seeking to bring over their fiancés. In the first nine months of 2017, approvals of fiancé visas dropped by 35 percent over the same period a year earlier, the Reuters data review found.
Immigration supporters said any efforts by the administration to restrict the entry of family members of migrants was shortsighted. They “bring drive and entrepreneurial spirit to the United States,” said Steve Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert at Cornell University.
Chain migration has long been a target of groups that favor more restrictions on legal immigration. The idea, supported by organizations like NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), failed to gain much traction at the highest levels of power in Washington before Trump took office.
“We have been talking about this for a long time but we were kind of out there in the wilderness” said Ira Mehlman from FAIR. “It was never at this level of discussion before.”
Now supporters of the ideas of restricting chain migration and tightening standards for legal immigration occupy key positions in the administration. They include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who remains vocal on the issue, and his long-time aide Stephen Miller, who is now one of Trump's closest policy advisers.
The current USCIS ombudsman Julie Kirchner was previously the executive director of FAIR.
The White House and the Department of Justice did not respond to questions about the influence of the groups, which critics say are anti-immigrant, on administration policy.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at CIS, said she and her colleagues “are in fairly regular contact with various administration officials as they solicit suggestions and ideas to improve policies.” She said she had also spoken to officials in the Obama administration, but only occasionally.
Earlier this month NumbersUSA launched a national advertising campaign against chain migration. A day later the White House posted a presentation on the same subject making many of the same points.
NumbersUSA director Roy Beck said any similarity in the points was just a coincidence. Still, he is thrilled that his group's ideas on restricting legal immigration have been "catapulted onto the main stage in an unprecedented way," he said in an interview.
In April, Trump signed an executive order directing agencies to draft new rules and guidance for the legal immigration system. In August, the White House backed the RAISE Act, proposed legislation sponsored by two Republican lawmakers, that aimed to cut legal immigration by 50 percent over 10 years.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin