President Donald Trump’s proposals to decrease family-based immigration and crack down on people who overstay their visas could have big impacts in Hawaii.

Trump talked about his plans to increase merit-based immigration by limiting family-based immigration during a speech at the White House this week. He also directed federal agencies last month to come up with a plan to limit the number of people who overstay their visas.

Local immigration attorneys say that any attempt to limit family-based immigration could have a major impact on Hawaii’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

“The effect here in Hawaii will be extreme because our percentages (of family-based immigration) are probably significantly more dramatic than national figures,” says John Egan, a law professor at the University of Hawaii. “There are a lot of family members that are being petitioned right now as we speak.”

President Donald Trump walks with First Lady Melania Trump at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor.
President Donald Trump, pictured here with First Lady Melania Trump at Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor, is proposing limits on family-based immigration and cracking down on people who overstay their visas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Immigration attorney Clare Hanusz says limiting family-based immigration would be a hypocritical policy.

“It’s so ironic because Donald petitioned Melania, Melania petitioned her parents and now that Melania’s parents are here, screw everybody else’s parents basically,” she said.

A potential crackdown on visa overstays could also have ripple effects on Hawaii’s undocumented community. The Aloha State has largely been insulated from the tensions along the country’s southern border. But being surrounded by ocean hasn’t slowed the flow of unauthorized immigration.

Hawaii is home to an estimated 45,000 undocumented immigrants, according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center. That’s about 3.3% of the state’s population, on par with the national average.

Unlike national immigration trends, most of the unauthorized immigrants in Hawaii are from the Asia-Pacific region, according to local immigration attorneys. Just 6% are from Mexico compared with 51% nationally, the Pew Research Center found.

Egan says that while the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. initially arrived legally, he estimates that proportion is much higher in Hawaii — up to 90% — given the state’s unique geography.

As for visa overstays, plans for any potential crackdown are still unclear and yet to be implemented.

Hanusz says she hasn’t gotten any calls from clients who overstayed their visas and are facing deportation, but USCIS recently expanded the categories of people who are eligible for removal proceedings.

She got a call from a client this week who was told to appear for an immigration hearing after their tourist visa extension was denied.

“These are the Trump policies now in action, we are seeing now the local face of these pronouncements, at least some of them, coming to pass here,” she said.

Visa Overstays

On April 22, Trump ordered the heads of the State Department and the Department on Homeland Security to come up with plans to limit the number of people who stay in the U.S. longer than they’re legally allowed to.

Trump’s memorandum says countries with overstay rates exceeding 10% for B-1 and B-2 nonimmigrant visas could face entry limits, fewer visas or more document requirements. Many countries that fall into that category are in Africa.

The Department of Homeland Security also lists the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia as having high B-1 and B-2 nonimmigrant visa overstay rates. It’s unclear how many people are actually affected given that RMI and FSM citizens do not require visas to enter or work in the U.S. and very few take that route.

Daniel Inouye Airport escalator to immigration area.
Most undocumented immigrants in Hawaii arrive in the U.S. legally. Pictured here is the entrance to the immigration area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But other types of visa overstays — such as those for students and tourists — are being targeted for additional enforcement too.

“The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall immediately begin taking all appropriate actions that are within the scope of their respective authorities to reduce overstay rates for all classes of nonimmigrant visas,” Trump’s memorandum says.

The overstay rate for students and exchange visitors from the Philippines, for example, is 9.5% — far more than the 2.11% national average. Tonga, meanwhile, has an overstay rate for students and exchange visitors of nearly 24%. The Solomon Islands’ rate is 17.65%.

Maile Hirota, an immigration attorney who works in downtown Honolulu, questions whether targeting people who overstay their visas is an effective use of resources. Doing so could add to the existing immigration court backlog, she said.

Immigration attorney Stella Shimamoto says it would difficult to enforce such a crackdown.

“You’d have a very difficult time rounding them all up,” she said.

She said it’s tough to evaluate the impact of Trump’s plan without many details but she’s worried that his administration could take away existing paths to legalization for people with expired visas.

Family-Based Immigration

Trump’s latest proposal to overhaul the immigration system would give immigrants points based on skills and education and mandate immigrants learn English and be financially self-sufficient, the New York Times reported.

John Egan, a law professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, says family reunification is the dominant form of immigration in the state. Courtesy of the University of Hawaii

Increasing merit-based immigration would come at the cost of family-based immigration however, and so far, it’s not clear exactly what that would mean. Trump hasn’t yet said what particular categories of family-based immigration could be eliminated.

But Egan from the University of Hawaii says getting rid of any categories, including siblings of adult U.S. citizens, would have drastic effects on Hawaii families seeking to be reunited.

“Here in Hawaii, it’s really the dominant form of immigration,” he said. Nationally, there’s a huge backlog for family-based immigration from the Philippines, India, Mexico and China.

According to the Department of State, the U.S. in June plans to process applications for siblings of U.S. citizens in the Philippines that were approved 22 years ago in 1997. Applications for Chinese siblings of U.S. citizens are backlogged 13 years.

Egan says communities in Hawaii who rely on family-based immigration are primarily Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Pacific Islanders.

“It’s a perfectly logical thing to reassess how we give out visas,” he said.

“But flipping from 14% (employment-based immigration) and 60% (family-based immigration) — reversing that — would be just a completely radical shift and not even the most active and enthusiastic pro-immigration people think that we need that many more employment visas.”

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