The flurry of pardons for significant perpetrators of fraud and drug crimes may have revealed that insincerity resided at the core of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Officials said the border wall and Trump’s business immigration policies were designed to fight fraud and keep out drugs and bad people. However, to put it simply, the pardons show it is unlikely Donald Trump enacted restrictive immigration policies because he cared about stopping fraud.
On April 18, 2017, in one of his first major immigration policy directives, Trump issued the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. A key part of the order was to protect the interests of U.S. workers “through the prevention of fraud or abuse.” White House adviser Stephen Miller “told the Associated Press that USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] was plagued by a ‘huge amount of fraud.’”
After four years, the evidence indicates that “prevention of fraud” in the Trump administration turned out to be a way to prevent immigration.
“The Trump administration failed to show that employment-based immigration programs had statistically significant levels of fraud,” said Dagmar Butte of Parker Butte and Lane in an interview. “From the data presently available it does not appear the levels are any higher than they were when the Bush administration created the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate for employment-based immigration. The Trump changes in policy increased costs for employers who needed the talent and desperately wanted to follow the rules to get it. It also created anxiety and harmed the workers who wanted to earn a living and contribute to the U.S. economy.”
“Trump administration policies didn’t prevent fraud but discouraged employers and workers from participating in these immigration categories, given the barriers to entry and continued participation,” she said. “That seems to have been the real purpose of these initiatives.”
Butte, who is chair of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and a member of its H-1B Taskforce, reviewed and analyzed documents uncovered by a FOIA request that revealed something crucial about Trump immigration policies: The increase in denials were not due to fraud or fraud prevention but to policies aimed at restricting who USCIS could approve for immigration benefits, including H-1B visas.
As reported in September 2019, “New government documents reveal the increase in denials and Requests for Evidence for H-1B petitions are part of an effort by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to achieve desired results — fewer high-skilled foreign nationals working in America. The American Immigration Lawyers Association made the documents public after settling a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.”
A previously secret document (before the FOIA release) showed a leading reason for the increase in the H-1B denial rate had nothing to do with combating fraud. It was a new, restrictive interpretation of immigration law that caused the significant increase in H-1B denials. The “Implementation of March 31, 2017 Memo, Rescission of the December 22, 2000 ‘Guidance memo on H-1B computer-related-positions’” told USCIS adjudicators, in effect, they could deny H-1B petitions for many occupations because the Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook states that not everyone hired in those occupations required a bachelor’s degree. Judges ruled that interpretation to be unlawful, but only after businesses experienced years of denials by USCIS adjudicators.
What about the pardons? The pardons do not reveal an administration or a president who cared about fraud. Before leaving office, Donald Trump granted clemency to “Philip Esformes, a former nursing home executive who orchestrated one of the biggest Medicare frauds in United States history,” reported the New York Times. “Not far away, in Hialeah, Fla., Judith Negron, 49, who had been convicted in a separate scheme to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent Medicare payments, was also at home for the holidays instead of in federal prison. Thanks to a commutation by Mr. Trump, she had been released after serving eight years of a 35-year sentence and was relieved of any remaining obligation to pay her share of $87 million in court-ordered restitution.”
Other convicted or alleged perpetrators of fraud who received pardons from Trump included Stephen Bannon, a former member of the Trump administration accused of taking nearly $1 million for personal use from a charity to build a private border wall. “What gives the pardon power a bad name is using your last hours in office to help a political ally like Mr. Bannon who was charged with ripping off your own supporters,” wrote the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.
NBC News reported other individuals who received pardons from Donald Trump included:
– “Former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) . . . In 2013, he was sentenced to three years in prison for extortion, bribery, insurance fraud, money laundering and racketeering in a public corruption case.”
– “Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham: Another ex-member of Congress, the California Republican was sentenced to 8 years in prison for bribery and was released in 2013.”
– “Eliyahu Weinstein . . . from Lakewood, New Jersey, has been pardoned whilst serving his eighth year of a 24-year sentence for a real estate investment fraud as well as money laundering charges.”
– “Shalom Weiss . . . Weiss was pardoned 18 years into an 835-year sentence — believed to be the longest-ever white-collar prison sentence — for his role in setting up an insurance fraud scheme.”
One of the rationales laid out by Donald Trump to keep out Mexicans and build a wall was to stop drugs from coming into the country. Border Patrol officials also argued in favor of building the wall as a way to stop drugs. “Jonathon Braun . . . imported marijuana worth approximately $1.76 billion, from 2008 to 2010, according to Customs and Border Protection documents, including 2,200 pounds in a single incident,” reported NBC. “He pleaded guilty in 2011 and served five years of a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to import marijuana and to commit money laundering. Trump commuted his sentence.”
“As recently as two and a half years ago, Mr. Braun was accused of throwing a man off a deck at an engagement party,” according to the New York Times. “Federal prosecutors said in a court proceeding that he threatened to beat a rabbi who borrowed money to renovate a preschool at his synagogue.”
An examination of the policies and the final flurry of pardons make it difficult to argue Donald Trump enacted restrictive immigration policies due to an abiding interest in preventing fraud.