It was November 2014.  The Speaker of the House of Representatives at that point, Representative John Boehner (R-OH) expanded on his earlier comments, in which he said President Obama was acting like an “emperor” and a “king.”  “That is not how American democracy works,” Boehner said. “…By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.” Those comments came two years after the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) by President Obama.  Well, fast forward to 2020 and DACA just withstood the rigors of Supreme Court scrutiny.

But Speaker Boehner’s words are worth revisiting. Are we seeing any emperor-like behavior now during this Administration?

Here is an example.  The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act was an attempt to eliminate the existing immigration visa system and replace it with a merit or points-based system.  Introduced in August 2017 by Senator Tom Cotton, it did not pass both chambers of Congress despite Republicans holding the majority in both the House and the Senate.  We next heard about the RAISE Act when a second version was floated as an idea by the White House in July 2019.  Again, it did not go anywhere.

Fast forward again to 2020, and we can see however that many of the provisions of the RAISE Act (or even more stringent changes) appear to be taking shape through executive action as the administration uses the COVID-19 pandemic as a spear to change the rules of the immigration law game.

My point is not to argue against safety measures needed to counter the coronavirus pandemic.  We of course need precautions, quarantines, testing, contact tracing, etc…But is this Administration taking advantage of COVID-19 to arm-bar the public with its restrictive agenda? Let’s compare the RAISE Act with recent COVID-19-related executive actions.

The RAISE Act sought to eliminate the diversity visa lottery program, create a “W” visa for a parent of an adult US child, and set up a “points” or “merits” based system that would value skills over family relationships, ignoring America’s historic commitment to family reunification AND the value that having a support network of family members brings to working parents for instance.

The 2020 COVID-19 bans by comparison halt entry of certain nonimmigrants in H, L, or J visa categories, with some exceptions (Proclamation 10052, June 22, 2020), halt immigrant visas for family and employment based cases, in addition to the diversity visa lottery program, with only narrow exceptions (Proclamation 10014, April 22, 2020), and openly utilize the COVID-19 global pandemic as an excuse to discuss transitioning to a “merit-based immigration system.”

Simply put, the administration has taken steps under the guise of COVID-19 to bring our immigration “system” far closer to the RAISE Act.  While there are exceptions, and this is all supposedly ‘temporary,’ it behooves us to note that the first proclamation was ‘temporary’ too – and then extended past 60 days through the end of the year.  The second proclamation did not even bother with 60 days, but will last through December 31, 2020, leaving countless immigrants and non-immigrants, their families, and businesses in the lurch.

Meanwhile, even if these change are not enough to convince you, press outlets report this week that, unless it is provided with a $1.2 billion dollar bailout, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will furlough approximately 13,400 employees beginning in August, even though  the Administration has yet to submit a formal request to Congress for the money.  It bears noting that USCIS has always been self-funded in the past through immigrant application fees.  The agency’s present shortfall is largely due to its own fiscal mismanagement and counterproductive policies.  These policies have understandably had a chilling effect on applications and fees.  AILA and our partners are calling for transparency and accountability as Congress considers this request and you can take action and tell them fiscal responsibility and efficiency matter to you too.

With so many people banned, thousands of employees being furloughed, and the printing presses having stopped, the U.S. immigration system will be effectively ground to a halt.  So, who is acting like an emperor now?