Donald Trump’s best-known policy proposal is to build a wall on America’s southern border. Accordingly, voters see him as an immigration hardliner keen to keep many foreigners out of the country. He clearly intends to crack down hard on illegal immigrants, at least, if elected, and few doubt his resolve to do it. But his recent contention that he would like to give green cards to anyone who graduates from a four- or two-year American college raises questions about his core convictions on legal immigration, and whether its numbers should go up, down, or stay the same.

“What I want to do and what I will do is you graduate from a college, I think you should get automatically as part of your diploma, a green card to be able to stay in this country,” Trump said on the All-In podcast, hosted by Silicon Valley tech investors. “And that includes junior colleges, too,” he added. “Let me just tell you that it’s so sad when we lose people from Harvard, MIT, from the greatest schools, and lesser schools that are phenomenal schools also,” he said.

In invoking the plight of Harvard and MIT grads, Trump is imitating one of the ways the Left typically frames the immigration debate: cherry picking a sympathetic and desirable group (farm workers, Dreamers, A+ students, and the like) to justify a policy proposal that would affect far more than those easy-to-justify cases. I interviewed thousands of foreign students for visas when I worked at the State Department, and for every one applicant admitted to a school like Harvard or MIT, a thousand more were hoping to attend open-enrollment community colleges or non-selective four-year schools. Unfortunately, the media obscure that reality.

As the father of two teenage boys who will be applying to colleges in a few years, I’m concerned that Trump’s plan would make it even harder to get into selective American colleges and universities. As it is, the number of foreign students studying in American colleges last year topped 1 million, more than three times the number in 1980. One can only imagine how many foreign students would apply to American schools if we were to guarantee them a green card upon graduation.

Getting into selective colleges, particularly affordable state schools, is hard enough as it is. For example, I have two friends whose kids were denied entry to the University of Florida this spring, despite having 4.5 GPAs and SATs above 1500. One was the salutatorian of her class at one of my hometown’s best public high schools. Even a 10 percent or 20 percent increase in foreign applications at schools like the University of Florida would make them significantly harder to attend.

Most of the student-visa applicants I encountered during my days working at U.S. embassies abroad weren’t genius types. Many didn’t even speak English, but that isn’t a barrier to entry at community colleges, who are happy to accept anyone with a pulse and enroll them in ESL classes. Often, they had bizarre educational goals, considering that they were in the United States—for example, more than a few wanted to study French, Spanish, or another foreign language. When I would ask why they didn’t study in France or Spain, the answer was always the same: they had a relative in the U.S., and the student visa was their preferred ticket in. Tying green cards to diplomas, particularly from open-enrollment colleges, will only accelerate this unfortunate trend.

Most Americans, me included, support offering green cards to the world’s best students studying useful subjects (sorry, we have enough gender- and ethnic-studies majors). But this is already happening to a considerable degree via the free market: employers petition for the best students. And there are still other ways for students to stay in the U.S. after graduation. They can work here for up to three years via the Optional Practical Training program, which is often enough time for them to find an employer who will petition for them. And if not, many get green cards by marrying American citizens. How many genius rocket-scientist types from MIT and Harvard are we actually losing to other countries? No one has been able to quantify it.

Trump’s plan arguably could expand legal immigration more than anything Biden has proposed. Employers would love it because they can often pay foreign nationals less than Americans, and they want to recruit from the broadest possible talent pool, regardless of what is in the national interest.

Some say Trump is courting corporate donors. Perhaps, but it’s worth noting that he made liberal use of guest-worker programs, most notably the H-2B visa, at his own company. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 proposal to “staple a green card” to U.S. college degrees was far more limited than the idea Trump has just floated: her plan never mentioned junior colleges and was limited to students obtaining advanced degrees in science and technology.

After the interview, the Trump campaign walked back the former president’s comments but only a bit, noting that the plan would entail an “aggressive vetting process” that would “exclude all communists, radical Islamists, Hamas supporters, America haters and public charges.” And Trump pondered a similar proposal before his first campaign: on August 18, 2015, he tweeted, “When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.” He also said in his 2019 State of the Union address that he wanted “the largest numbers ever” of legal immigrants.

As president, Trump didn’t pursue either of these ideas. Perhaps he understood that his base wouldn’t be receptive. But would he try it in a second term, knowing he’ll never have to face voters again?

Though they would surely favor such a plan as Trump’s, the corporate press dismissed it, mostly by claiming that it’ll never happen. I’m not so sure. Every Democrat would vote for it, and many Republicans would, too. The proposal received some blowback on the right, but not that much. Trump has enough street cred on immigration that many voters trust him on it implicitly and hope that he was just telling some Silicon Valley types what they wanted to hear. Maybe. But if there is a second presidential debate, let’s hope that he’s asked to clarify his position. Turning American colleges into visa mills is not the way to go.

Photo: Evgenia Parajanian / iStock / Getty Images Plus


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next